Allowances frozen, criminal checks on councillors and a new car park for Doxford International - TEN key points from full Sunderland City Council meeting

The last full council meeting of 2018/19 was eventful, stretching to nearly four-and-a-half hours.

By The Newsroom
Thursday, 28 March, 2019, 11:25

As the authority approaches its latest round of elections in May, rival councillors clashed over issues from Universal Credit to councillors’ allowances.

However, the meeting also saw city leaders respond to concerns over global warming as the latest council to declare a ‘climate emergency’.

Here, we provide you with a round-up of everything you missed from the council chamber last night.

1) Tributes to Wearside war veteran

A one-minute silence was held in memory of Lieutenant Colonel Mordaunt Cohen following his death earlier this month aged 102.

In her announcements, Mayor of Sunderland, Coun Lynda Scanlan, paid tribute to the Sunderland-born solicitor, officer and community stalwart.

After his military service ended, Lt. Col. Cohen became “one of the most well-known figures in the town”, she said.

Before his passing, he was known as the most senior Jewish Second World War veteran in the UK.

He previously led the Conservative group on Sunderland council and served as chairman of Sunderland Polytechnic, which later became Sunderland University.

And for the 70th anniversary of V-J day, he also produced online videos to educate people about the Second World War – for which he was awarded an MBE by the Queen in 2018.

2) Labour councillors step down

As the May 2 elections approach, five Labour councillors have announced plans to retire at the end of their current term.

Redhill councillor, Richard Bell

Copt Hill councillor, Mary Turton.

Hendon councillor, Victoria O’Neill

St Anne’s councillor Karen Waters

Southwick councillor, Miles Elliott

3) Future works at Sunderland Railway Station

Following a public question, council leader Graeme Miller gave an update on plans for Sunderland’s Central Station.

He said: “It is widely recognised that the current above ground station building, opened in 1966, does not provide an appropriate gateway for Sunderland.

“The city council is working closely with partners including Network Rail and Nexus to bring forward an alternative, much-needed and improved station building with improved facilities for passengers.

“Detailed design options are being prepared currently and both the council and Nexus have committed capital funds to the project”.

He added the project is planned for 2020/21 subject to additional funding being secured, including gap funding from the government’s ‘Transforming Cities Fund’.

4) New overflow car park at Doxford International 

Councillors also heard an update on a planned car park near Doxford International following a public question.

Cabinet member for Environment and Transport, Coun Amy Wilson, said the car park, adjacent to Clinton Place, would be built by a private developer.

She explained it would aim to “accommodate overflow demand” from occupiers at Doxford International Business Park.

The meeting heard the car park would be paid for by businesses choosing to enter a lease agreement to provide car parking spaces for their staff.

Coun Wilson added: “Individual businesses will need to decide whether they’re able to afford this cost or will need to pass it onto their staff.”

5) Councillors’ Allowances frozen

Councillors’ allowances will see no changes next year following a decision by city leaders.

A report from the Independent Remuneration Panel  recommended no changes to allowances for the 2019/20 financial year.

However, opposition Liberal Democrat and Conservative councillors made calls to ignore the recommendations and come up with new plans to cut allowances and expenses.

But the call to refer the allowances decision back to cabinet was voted down by the Labour group.

Council leader Graeme Miller stressed the council had not accepted a rise in allowances in the last seven years – equating to an 18% cut in “real terms spending power of their allowances”.

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“This is not an elitist thing, councillors in this chamber are disabled, unemployed, students, working on a low wage, single parents and everything that goes with it,” he said.

“So their allowances are very important. Do remember these are ordinary people who have committed to doing a civic duty by being a councillor, with all the pressure that comes with it.”

Basic allowance will remain at £8,369 in addition to any special responsibility allowances paid to councillors who are cabinet members, committee leaders and the mayor/ deputy.

6) Council declare ‘climate emergency’

Sunderland City Council is the latest in a wave of local authorities to declare a ‘climate emergency’.

A motion, raised by the Conservative group, aimed to bring the dangers of climate change into the spotlight and to shape future targets and projects to reduce carbon emissions.

Council agreed to lobby government to reinstate several ‘green policies’ after backing a Lib Dem amendment.

Labour leaders also revealed their ambition of becoming totally carbon-neutral by 2030 in a new ten-year ‘carbon plan.’

The plan is expected to come into place next year following a consultation in the Autumn.

7) Calls for government to scrap Universal Credit

Councillors clashed in an emotive debate over the progress of benefit system Universal Credit (UC) and its impact on Sunderland residents.

A motion, launched by Labour councillor Neil MacKnight, called for the government to “abandon implementation of (the) unjust scheme with immediate effect.”

It also asked councillors to “recognise and condemn the severe hardship placed on many vulnerable residents of the City of Sunderland” as a result of the roll-out.

Universal Credit was introduced in 2013 and was intended to replace six ‘legacy benefits’ including unemployment benefit, tax credits and housing benefit.

In recent years, it has been criticised for issues around delays in payment putting claimants at increased risk of hardship.

Labour councillors slammed the benefit system as “conscious cruelty”and a “scandal of the modern day”, arguing it leaves claimants in debt and at risk of homelessness.

Other issues included “assumptions” around digital literacy and the ability of claimants to manage personal budgets.

While the motion was voted through by majority, Conservatives were criticised for voting against.

Group leader, Coun Robert Oliver, admitted the system had faced problems but argued the phased roll-out “allowed problems to be addressed.”

He added UC was having an impact on unemployment and should be viewed in the context of the lowest unemployment figures since 1975.

8) Plaque to commemorate Sunderland volunteers in Spanish Civil War

Councillors agreed to pay tribute to Sunderland residents who served as volunteers for the International Brigades.

A motion, launched by Coun Dr Geoffrey Walker, called on members to “applaud the  gallant contribution” of both men and women during the Spanish Civil War (1936-1939).

This includes erecting a plaque in Sunderland which  “celebrates the significance of the actions of all those who took part.”

9) Call to government to ‘exempt’ prescription charges for Parkinson’s sufferers 

Councillors agreed to write to government to exempt people with Parkinson’s disease and other long-term conditions from prescription charges.

A motion, launched by Coun Doris Turner, stated that many people under 60 who have Parkinson’s struggle to pay multiple prescription charges.

To mark Parkinson’s Awareness Week next month, council have agreed to write to the secretary of state for health over the issue.

The motion was backed by all political parties.

10) Call for criminal record checks policy for all councillors

A Conservative group motion calling for extra criminal background checks for councillors also won backing.

This includes a policy of asking all 75 members to undertake Disclosure and Barring Service (DBS) checks.

Following the request, the council’s chief executive will now explore the possibility of adopting a policy and update councillors at a future meeting.

However, Conservatives stressed this would involve asking councillors to take DBS checks on a voluntary basis, rather than making the checks mandatory.

Chris Binding , Local Democracy Reporting Service