Five key issues for St Helens Council in 2020

The key issues for St Helens in 2020
The key issues for St Helens in 2020

With the new year now upon us, St Helens Local Democracy Reporter Kenny Lomas looks ahead to some of the key issues in 2020.

Recycling pilot

Back in July St Helens Council unveiled a prototype of the new recycling containers set to be trialled in the town centre early next year.

The final version of the recycling receptacles are due to be completed by January.

As soon as they are ready, the council will look to begin the long-delayed pilot, which will target areas that have some of the lowest recycling rates in the borough.

Once the pilot concludes, council chiefs will then crunch the numbers and decide what to do next.

This council are hoping to roll out the multi-box recycling system, which is being produced by Coral Products based in Haydock Industrial Park, across the borough.

The council could also revisit controversial plans to introduce three-weekly brown bin collections.

A recycling pilot, which included the three-weekly landfill collections, was due to begin last February but was delayed while the council sourced new recycling containers.

Shortly after being appointed as leader of the council in May, David Baines announced he was putting the three-weekly collections on hold.

Coun Baines said back in July the focus is simply to recycle more and let that dictate future plans.

One of the key driving forces behind the shake-up of waste services is to help the borough reach a recycling rate of 50 per cent by 2020 and avoid EU fines being passed down from the government.

Local elections

Voters will head to the polls once again for the local elections in May.

No local elections will be held in 2021, with the council switching to an all-out election system in 2022 as part of a review of the borough’s electoral boundaries.

That means whoever is elected in May could potentially only serve two years, compared to the usual four-year cycle.

Labour will now doubt be sweating given its performance in the 2019 elections as well as the pummelling it suffered in the recent general election.

Last May the Green Party crushed Labour in Haydock and narrowly won Bold, defeating Liberal Democrat candidate and former councillor Brian Spencer.

Issues around the St Helens Local Plan and green belt development were key in both wards.

Liberal Democrat candidate David Smith also won Newton, narrowly beating Labour’s Fiona Ruddy.

Overall, Labour held 10 seats and lost four.

The party will be bracing itself for further losses in 2020, with a number of big-name Labour councillors up for re-election.

Some of these include the former deputy council leader Andy Bowden and planning chairman Seve Gomez-Aspron.

Former council leader Barrie Grunewald is also up for re-election in Rainhill, where Labour have suffered landslide defeats at the hands of independent candidates in the last two years.

Given that only one third of the council is up for election, Labour will remain in control no matter the outcome of May’s elections, although the party’s majority could take a hit and lay the groundwork for a power shift in 2022.

Town centre regeneration

Since taking over as leader of St Helens Council in May, David Baines has persistently touted the regeneration of the borough’s towns and district centres as one of his priorities.

But as the old saying goes, talk is cheap, and residents will be looking for firm action in 2020.

It’s now more three years since St Helens Council approved its town centre regeneration strategy, with the authority unveiling its ambitious 10-year masterplan in 2017.

While the plans may have evolved since then, it is understood the area around The World of Glass by the canal is still viewed as the focal point for the plans.

Central Library is expected to make the move from the Gamble Building to The World of Glass early next year as part of plans to establish a new arts and culture centre.

More changes are expected in Church Square Shopping Centre, which the council bought for £26.6 million in October 2017 and seen as “pivotal” to the council’s overall strategy.

The shopping centre was dealt a blow in July when Topshop shut its doors after the Arcadia Group, the company behind the chain, ran into financial difficulties.

Question marks also remain over the future of the former Marks & Spencer store on the high street, which closed in March.

In July, the Local Democracy Reporting Service revealed the council was eyeing up the vacant M&S store, with a view to housing the town’s indoor market.

As well as provide a boost to the council’s stuttering regeneration plans, the council hope the move will provide stability to the town’s indoor market, with traders feeling increasingly isolated.

However, in the months that have passed since it was revealed the council were in discussions to acquire the unit, no announcements have been made.

Next door, plans have been submitted to convert the former Argos store into a mixed-use premises comprising of a coffee shop, a launderette, offices and a centre management office.

London and Cambridge Properties, owners of the Hardshaw Centre, are behind the plans.

St Helens Local Plan

It’s safe to say the St Helens Local Plan has had a precarious history – and 2019 was no different.

The ‘submission draft’ version of the St Helens Local Plan: 2020-2035 was approved by St Helens Council in December 2018, although all opposition councillors voted against the plan.

In January, the council apologised to residents after sending thousands of additional letters to homes because the first batch failed to provide crucial information about the local plan.

An eight-week publication consultation, giving the public a final opportunity to comment on the plan, was due to conclude in March.

The council was forced to extend the deadline by a further eight weeks – effectively re-running it – after it came to light that it had not written to residents in Bold and Clock Face who lived close to sites that are proposed to be removed from the green belt.

In October, the council apologised again after residents received duplicate letters informing them of its intention to publish names and addresses as part of the Local Plan examination process.

This prompted accusations from local campaign group, Residents against the Florida Farm Developments, of providing inaccurate information to residents after they approached the Planning Inspectorate for further clarification.

The council stood its ground and released a joint statement with the Planning Inspectorate in an attempt to clear up the matter once and for all.

It had been anticipated that the Local Plan would be submitted to the government in autumn 2019, with public hearings likely to take place in the spring. However, this has not yet happened.

The length of this delay could impact whether the council is in a position to adopt the plan in 2020, provided it gets the nod from the Secretary of State.

Whether it is adopted or not, the Local Plan is sure to be another huge issue the council will push on with in 2020.

It is also safe as houses to assume the plan will be met with the same level of opposition it has done to date.

Children’s services

Last year saw a big focus on improving children’s social services, with St Helens Council making a series of investments following a damning Ofsted visit in 2018.

In October 2018, cabinet agreed to an additional commitment of £2m per year and then agreed a further £3.5m at a meeting in February this year.

The council said the annual investment will provide better support to foster families in St Helens as well as a greater recruitment of foster placements.

It will also help sustain an increase in the number of social workers to keep case loads manageable, and an improvement in care leaver support.

Ofsted returned to St Helens for a full inspection, covering all aspects of children’s social care services, in September.

Two months later, the social services watchdog issued its lowest rating of “inadequate”, despite acknowledging some recent improvements to services.

Ofsted said children’s social services had declined since the last full inspection in 2014, when services required improvement.

The watchdog said children and families who need help and protection are still not receiving a consistently good service.

Additionally, Ofsted said there was “widespread and serious failures” in the quality of services for children in care, due to significant drift and delay in securing children a stable long-term home.

Shortly after the report was published, St Helens Council leader David Baines said the council was “committed” to improving children’s services and would do “whatever it takes”.

Last month the council revealed it would be creating a new director of children’s services post to lead on the improvement of children’s services, as part of a restructure of the council’s senior management team.

The statutory post currently falls under the remit of the executive director of people’s services, Professor Sarah O’Brien, who will maintain strategic oversight and coordination of children’s and adult’s services.

Additionally, a detailed review of the borough’s safeguarding units will be undertaken involving the director of children’s services, the director of adult services and relevant cabinet members.