This the archive of 2019 District Matters, a column penned by the Leader of Stratford-on-Avon District Council, Councillor Tony Jefferson.
Please note: these columns have previously been published in the Stratford Herald newspaper.
Got a question for Councillor Jefferson? You can get in touch via Ask the Leader.
This time of the year is always a good time to reflect on both the year that is passing and look forward in anticipation to the year to come.
2019 has certainly been a year of challenges. Not least for me personally in needing a total hip replacement. It does make one realise how useful being able to walk is, and how much better it is to be pain free.
After the elections in May we put together a new Cabinet and I am impressed with the way in which the new Cabinet has, enthusiastically and effectively, got to grips with their roles. We work together as a team and have good, free flowing discussions on issues. We all have an understanding of everything that is going on, and there is a lot going on.
In June one of our Executive Directors left and this gave an opportunity to reshape the organisation structure and make new appointments. The first appointments were formally approved by Council on Monday 16th December. We have two further new appointments to make next year which will significantly strengthen the Executive team. This will reinforce our capability and capacity to cope with the challenges we face in 2020 and beyond.
One of the most positive outcomes of 2019 has been the way in which officers and Cabinet have worked openly and challengingly together. A clear manifestation of this was in the development of The Council Plan for the next 5 years. Indeed one of the real assets we have as a Council is our developing culture. It may seem strange to say this after the investigation that took place this year, however the report produced was largely positive and cultures take time to change. As Leader I ‘walk the floor' several times a week. I have an open door policy and encourage people to speak openly. David Buckland the CEO's values and behaviour are closely aligned, so together we will embed the changes even more deeply. Feedback we have had from one of our senior officers who has worked in many councils, reinforces the effectiveness of our culture and how it differs from that found in most councils.
It is the calibre of councillors and officers that will enable us to face the challenges of 2020 and beyond with confidence. Just some of the challenges are:
So, 2020 is shaping up to be an exciting year, there is nothing like a series of challenges to bring out the best in the good people. At all levels in the District Council we have some very, very good people. They make us what we are.
This column is normally the preserve of the Council's Leader, Tony Jefferson. Tony, however, is currently convalescing following a hip replacement operation. In wishing him a speedy recovery, I also agreed to take this opportunity to write this column on his behalf.
For many residents within the District, there is a feeling that they pay a lot in Council Tax. Their annual Council Tax statement turns up with inevitable regularity and they wonder whether they are really receiving value for their hard earned money.
The District Council only retains a fraction of the Council Tax it collects towards the cost of the services it provides. Of every pound collected, 77p goes to Warwickshire County Council, 12.2p to the local Police and Crime Commissioner and 3.3p to the District's parish councils. The District Council's 7.5p forms only one of the sources of the Council's income. The rest comes from central government under various headings. The issue the Council faces is that the amounts from these central government sources have reduced in recent years and are likely to continue to reduce. For example, the Council receives a New Homes Bonus for houses built in the District. This year this is expected to amount to £4.5m. In 3 years' time this is projected to be no more than £1.3m.
The government of the day may change the way local government is funded between now and then. But the Council cannot rely on this. For example, in September the government announced an increase of £3.5bn for local government in the 2019 Spending Review. Stratford, however, will not receive any of this additional funding.
When setting its annual budget, the Council is required to produce a budget that is balanced. In other words, given the services that the Council is either required to provide by law, or chooses to provide in the interests of the District and its residents, the costs involved have to be met by the revenue it receives or generates. Where annual revenue needs to be supplemented by drawing on reserves to achieve that balance, this can only go on so long as there are sufficient reserves available.
In planning its finances, the Council looks beyond the immediate year to try to see what the picture will look like in 5 years' time. There is always the need for a minimum level of reserves to be able to respond to the unexpected. The greater the degree of uncertainty about future sources of revenue, the greater is the need to husband the level of reserves to be able to protect the provision of services to our residents.
The Council faces the prospect that within the next three years, its reserves could decline to the point where the minimum level needed will be approached. The Council's ability to raise revenue by increasing the Council Tax is effectively limited by law to increases of 2% per annum. Given the likelihood of continued reductions in funding from central government, this will not provide sufficient revenue to provide services at their current level. The Council's declaration on the climate emergency and its implications of change in priorities and actions, for example, illustrates the demand for additional resources.
This is the basis upon which there is a pressing need for the Council to identify ways to generate replacement sources of revenue so that it can continue to meet its obligations and the needs and expectations of its residents. It is against this challenging background that the preparatory work for next year's budget is currently being undertaken.
Dr Trevor Harvey, District Councillor, Shipston North
Portfolio Holder for Finance and Assets
Planning Policy is a major service area for the Council; as it has to continually engage in plan-making and the preparation of various land-use plans, policies, masterplans and strategies. To do this effectively we have to work with many stakeholders, so we have created a service combining planning strategy, housing strategy and economic strategy. We are required to produce plans such as the Core Strategy that has to be approved by a Planning Inspector, which means that we have to comply with certain requirements. These include the number of houses that need to be built, and in our current Core Strategy, the number of houses was revised upwards several times. And whilst many of the new homes go to new residents from elsewhere, part of the Planning Inspectors remit is to ensure that our Plan meets the needs, not just of the District, but the wider region. We have to comply.
Obviously this means that there are many tensions inherent in the process. We have to provide more houses than we would otherwise need, causing more traffic congestion and pressure on already overstretched local services. On the other hand, it provides land for new employment and jobs, and land for new homes. Unless we have an approved plan then we lose control of development, so the stakes are high. The reality is that either we make tough decisions ourselves or decisions will be made for us.
We have a Housing Strategy to facilitate the delivery of the homes we need. We have achieved record levels of both market and affordable homes in recent years (of the circa 2,700 homes built in the last two years, over 700 were affordable). We know that the affordability of houses is a massive challenge; however, we do not control house prices.
We are currently supplementing our existing Core Strategy with a Site Allocations Plan that identifies a number of reserve housing sites across the District. I know that for many residents these sites are not popular. Again, we have no choice but to do this. However, these reserve sites, if they are needed, are critically important in ensuring that the Council retains control of planning and avoids speculative applications for the wrong schemes, in the wrong locations. Again, these are difficult choices, but it is better than having no control.
However looking at it positively, we have used the Site Allocations Plan to help regenerate Studley and the Stratford-upon-Avon Gateway. We've also safeguarded some key employment sites such as the Quinton Rail Technology Centre and the University of Warwick's Wellesbourne Campus; necessary to attract inward investment which ties in with our Local Industrial Strategy. On this we work jointly with the Coventry and Warwickshire Growth Hub and Warwickshire County Council.
Infrastructure is a particularly challenging issue and is an increasing constraint on development. There has been so much growth that the amount of investment required is now very substantial. One of the advantages of detailed planning is that it enables us to make the case for investment to Homes England and Highways England. We are also working much more closely with neighbouring Districts, CWLEP and the WMCA to gain a more strategic perspective and bring more pressure to bear for the investment we need. At the same time as operating within these constraints, we seek to preserve and enhance the quality of the historic and natural environment; which make Stratford-on-Avon such a special place in which to live and work. Climate change is likely to make future decisions even more challenging, but they will be necessary if the District is to continue to thrive.
Another significant area are neighbourhood plans, where the team advise, guide and assist parish councils to enable local communities to shape the future of their area in the same way that the Council shapes the future of the whole District of Stratford-on-Avon. There are currently 13 made plans and 10 in various stages of preparation.
People frequently question what the District Council does. In the last Leader's Column, I covered Licensing and Planning; this time it is Democratic Services.
It is responsible, amongst other things, for running all elections in the district. Key to this is an Electors list of roughly 100,000 electors. The Electors list is updated throughout the year with a new fully revised one published at the beginning of December.
Individuals are responsible for ensuring they are registered to vote. However, we have to be sure that the person is ‘real' and is resident at the address shown. Around 10,000 new voter registrations happen each year by people changing their address or young people reaching voting age. Most occur during the autumn arising from information gathered by the enquiry forms sent to around 60,000 households. Over a third of the 60,000 households need a reminder sent. That totals 80,000 pieces of mail.
There are UK parliamentary, European parliamentary, County Council, District Council and town or parish council elections. In addition there are also Police and Crime Commissioner elections and national and local neighbourhood planning referendums, of which 15 have been held so far. Throughout the district there are 13 County Divisions and 36 District Wards. There are four town councils in the district: Stratford-upon-Avon, Shipston-on-Stour, Southam and Alcester. There are 79 parish councils of similar status to town councils, although without a mayor. In total this results in 110 different areas needing a total of 572 councillors to be elected.
For the District Council elections alone, there were 142 candidates nominated, with each nomination form needing 10 signatures. Each nomination form must be submitted, checked and verified, so 1,420 signatures needed to be checked (and every signature must be different). Not a small task. There were 32 nominations for Stratford Town Council.
Ideally, preparing for an election begins 12 months in advance with the booking of premises (over 100 may be required). Some 300 polling station staff are needed on the day and another 80 for the count. Some elections can be called at very short notice. The General Election in 2017 allowed just over seven weeks to organise staff allocations, premises, dealing with political parties, nomination papers, the despatch of nearly 20,000 postal votes and 100,000 poll cards, staff training, ballot paper production, the preparation of 140 ballot boxes with specific contents for particular areas, and all arrangements for vote counting.
Some 18,000 people are registered for postal votes. Everyone with a postal vote is sent a form to complete and a ballot paper. There are procedures in place to verify every returned postal vote for inclusion in the count. This involves checking personal identifiers such as date of birth and signature.
The European election earlier this year took everyone by surprise. The local elections were held on 2 May and the European poll just three weeks later. Never before have two major polls been held so close together, which presented complications such as people turning up at polling stations with the wrong poll cards and, in some cases, at the wrong polling station if a change of premises had been needed. Furthermore, the franchises for the two elections were not identical. Some people could only vote on 2 May and some only on 23 May.
I hope that this has given an insight into the amount of work that goes in to ensuring our democracy functions effectively. So, next time you exercise your vote you can appreciate all the ‘behind the scenes' effort.
I thought I would do something a bit different this time and provide some basics about the District Council and what we do.
Stratford-on-Avon has a population of 125,000 and rising. It is almost 980 sq. km in size and there are 110 parishes. As there are 36 councillors, this works out at 3,478 people per councillor and 3.1 parishes per councillor; many have far more. It is worth pointing out that, by area, we are 48% of Warwickshire. This has some significant implications for our role in the Coventry and Warwickshire region.
I cannot cover everything we do, so I will focus on Planning, Licensing, and Customer Services.
In 2018 there were 1,787 planning applications across the district (or 49.6 per councillor). This is easily the highest number of all the councils in Warwickshire and even amongst our near neighbours. We are regularly in the top 10 planning authorities for the number of planning applications we receive. It is not surprising that planning is a key issue for residents and one where we are under continuous scrutiny.
Unsurprisingly given the significance of planning nationally, the government has set national performance targets. Failure to reach the minimum level of performance carries with it sanctions and for those councils that fall into this category, the right to determine planning applications locally is removed and transferred to the Planning Inspectorate.
For major applications the target is 60% within 13 weeks, and in 2018-19 we achieved 95.7%; for minor applications the target is 65% within 8 weeks and we achieved 93.9%; for householders the target is 80% within 8 weeks and we achieved 93.1%. These are very significant achievements and demonstrate the professionalism and effectiveness with which we run the operation. Also notable is our success rate on planning appeals – in the first seven months of 2019 there have been 45 appeals dismissed and only 12 allowed. This compares favourably to the same period last year when 26 appeals were allowed and 24 were dismissed.
Elsewhere, The Licensing team is experiencing a busy period, as is usual during the summer months.
The team are core members of the District Council's Safety Advisory Group, providing advice and guidance to organisers of large licensed events, such as the forthcoming Camper Calling festival. Large festivals are inspected throughout the hours of their operation, and advice is given or regulatory action taken as appropriate for the protection of the public.
Getting the data on licensing has proved to be a bit of an “eye opener" for me, in terms of the scale and variety of their activity.
With approximately 900 licensed premises in the district providing entertainment, selling alcohol or providing late night refreshment, the team has a lot of ground to cover throughout the year. Officers work to check appropriate steps are being taken to ensure the safety of patrons and staff, minimise nuisance and prevent crime and disorder occurring.
If pubs are not taking appropriate steps they can be placed under review, which currently three are. The Licensing Committee has the power to change or even revoke a licence under review.
New animal welfare regulation has been another key focus of the team's work, and now this year's inspections are complete, the star ratings are displayed on our website for the 41 animal boarding establishments, nine riding establishments, three dog breeders, six pet shops and four performing animal businesses operating within our district.
Amongst other things the team continues to regulate our 200-strong taxi and private hire trade, 48 street traders, 59 caravan sites of varying type, eight scrap sites and nine betting shops. As they look to the future they are also working alongside the Environmental Health team and teams from other authorities to investigate emerging trends in our registered skin piercing establishments, such as dermal needling and vampire facials. (I have no idea what a vampire facial is, and thought it better not to ask.)
Finally, just to give you a feeling for the scale of activity across the council as a whole in the last 12 months, Customer Services dealt with 9,452 enquires in reception, the contact centre took 94,215 calls and 85,322 pieces of incoming mail were received. Last week the average time it took to respond to calls was 25 seconds and the average call lasted 2 minutes and 35 seconds. Customer Services deals with queries on everything from Council Tax and registering for housing lists to bulky waste collections, parking season ticket applications, and requests for additional bins, to name just a few. I walk round the building fairly often and the biggest number of “calls waiting" I have seen on the screen is seven. I am sure this may be higher at peak times, but given the call volumes the response times are good.
I think that the breadth and scale of our activities operates “below the radar" for most people, so I hope you have found these insights informative and that they explain some of the activities you get for your Council Tax.
I recently spent three days at the Local Government Association (LGA) Annual Conference in Bournemouth. The key message coming out was that there was massive uncertainty over Brexit and the direction policy would take under a new Prime Minister. As a result, most Ministerial and senior civil service speakers could say little of consequence.
There was a very clear message from delegates that Local Government finances are now stretched to breaking point in many cases. The particular areas of pressure are adult and children's social care (not a District Council responsibility). The need for some medium term certainty over funding was made robustly clear by delegates from across the political spectrum. From our point of view, a four year settlement would provide a clear picture of funding so we could plan ahead; otherwise we are manging year-to-year more or less in crisis mode. Ministers and civil servants said that they had got the message; we shall see when the funding settlement is made later this year. At Stratford District Council, we will plan on a scenario that assumes there is little extra money.
There was also a very clear message that, along with more funding, local councils wanted more freedoms, and more powers delegated from Whitehall to give us more flexibility to make a much bigger difference at the local level. I would endorse all of that. The constraints we operate under slow things down, create more work, and limit what we can do.
Climate change was also high on the agenda. There was a great deal of debate and obvious political posturing. Indeed, one of the characteristics of seasoned politicians appears to be the capability to speak at great length while saying little of consequence.
The best speech of the conference, by a broad consensus, was given by Mark Carney, Governor of the Bank of England. It was entitled “Sea Change" and reflected the increasing uncertainty over the direction of the global economy. The potential for a global trade war is a growing possibility. When this is coupled with uncertainty over Brexit and the election of a new Prime minister than the uncertainty for the UK is further compounded. At the moment, the Bank of England is assuming a smooth Brexit. A “no deal" Brexit would increase uncertainty even more. In the short term, UK economic growth has stalled, which is bad news for us all.
The other really good session was on High Streets; there were some impressive analytics which reinforce what we already know: that High Streets will need to massively reinvent themselves. I have acquired more background information, which we will study.
However gloomy and uncertain the outlook we have to keep working for the best for our district. Being at the conference enabled many contacts to be made and relationships to be forged or deepened. This was particularly the case with Warwickshire County Council, Redditch Borough Council, and Bromsgrove and Wyre Forest Districts. We agreed to get together with Redditch and Bromsgrove on one set of issues and Wyre Forest on a different set of issues. There is no doubting the importance of personal contact in building positive relationships which enable issues to be addressed more swiftly and easily. The conference was worth it from that point alone.
This massively reinforces the point that I made in my last Leader's Column. Working closely and cooperatively with an ever wider range of partners is of critical importance. Working together increases our influence and “clout". Cooperation also enables us to spread costs. In these times of increasing uncertainty and inevitable pressure on resources, it is absolutely vital.
Cabinet and the management team are currently working on our Corporate Strategy for the next four years. We have now had two meetings facilitated by an external consultant, fortunately funded by the Local Government Association. What I am finding heartening about the process is the quality of the thinking, the level of interaction between Cabinet and officers, and the level of energy.
There is no doubt that the next four years see a combination of challenges and opportunities against a backdrop of considerable uncertainty.
The key issues emerging are:
I am conscious that I have only skimmed the surface of what we are considering; however, I hope that it demonstrates both the seriousness and the depth and breadth of our thinking.
Finally, however good a strategy is, it cannot be seen as rigid. The world keeps on changing and we have to respond. The big advantage we are developing is a feeling that both Cabinet and officers are all on “the same page" and that, together, we have the capability to respond swiftly to challenges.
Well, that's the elections over for four years. The main issue on the doorstep, Brexit or lack of it, remains unresolved. From my viewpoint as Leader, this means that central government has little bandwidth for anything else. We have therefore just got to get on with things.
If I take a look at the next four years, then perhaps the main issue nationally is the slow growth of the economy. According to the Bank of England, the size of the UK economy increased by 0.3% in the three months to February, a similar rate of growth to the previous three months. That growth rate is relatively subdued; it is around half the rate of growth seen on average over the past five years. Many people believe that we are a rich country; although certainly not poor, we are nowhere near as rich as we would like to think. In GDP per head, a good measure, we currently rank 39th and are falling down the rankings.
I cannot help but think that this slow rate of growth will put pressure on spending.
Our present estimate is that by 2023/24 we will need to have closed a funding gap of at least £3 million, and I do not think that the squeeze will stop there. Before our budget proposals in November we will need to have mapped out how we will tackle this funding gap. There will almost certainly be some tough decisions, but ducking them will make the issue worse.
Over the past few years our local economy has performed very well, which creates affluence, jobs and revenue through business rates. Obviously we want to ensure that our economy continues to outperform. To help with this we play a very full role in the Coventry & Warwickshire Local Enterprise Partnership (CWLEP). There are three main initiatives we are working hard on:
The brand value of Stratford-upon-Avon and Shakespeare is beginning to be seen as adding value by both the CWLEP and the WMCA. As we need substantial investment in the town to maintain our position as an international tourist destination, this is important.
Sometimes I think that people believe that our success and affluence will continue regardless. My view is that it will not, and we have to work hard to maintain it. This is why economic development is very high on our agenda.
I am well aware that this column will not be an easy read; however, if you want an overview of the challenges we are facing over the medium term, then stick with it.
It is the time of the year when public sector budgets are set. This year, we at Stratford-on-Avon District Council (SDC) have set a budget that is roughly neutral in terms of deficit or surplus. This requires an increase in Council Tax of 1.5%. I am very aware that when residents receive their Council Tax bills they will find the total increase much higher. This is because the Police are raising their precept by £24 on a band D property, which equates to 11.77%, and Warwickshire County Council is raising its precept by 4.99%. In percentage terms, the overall increase is 5.52%. SDC collects all the money but retains only a small portion of it; £139.12 out of a total of £1,799. (This does not include parish councils, where the average precept is £61.)
Business rates are our other main source of revenue. Business rates are set by central government but, again, SDC collects the money. We collect almost £55m in business rates but keep only £5.2 million; the remainder goes to Warwickshire County Council, with £27.3 million going into a central pot for redistribution across the country.
Grants from central government in 2019/20 will be £299,000 and will disappear altogether in 2020/21. Our other major source of revenue is the New Homes Bonus, which will be £4.5 million in 2019/20 but will, we expect, reduce to £1 million by 2023/24. Although our reserves are currently £9.2 million, over the next five years these are forecast to reduce to £2.6 million. In reality, our capability to use reserves to fund our activities ends in 2023/24.
There is a Fair Funding Review being undertaken by government this year which will, in effect, give us a picture of the income that we can expect from central government, including business rates and New Homes Bonus.
It is inevitable that we are going to become ever more dependent on money raised through local taxes, including business rates, and charges. Indeed this is the strategy of the government, not to raise overall taxation but push it down to local level. This has been particularly noticeable with the Police precept, where it has been increased by £36 in two years.
This raises some rather significant questions; central government is fond of asking us to take on more responsibilities without providing the funding. In other words, it expects local residents to foot the bill. As we are democratically elected councillors then, if our local electorate says “enough is enough" regarding taxes and charges, how are we going to reconcile central government's demands with the wishes of local taxpayers?
The underlying tensions will be between a set of national standards common throughout the land, or differences in provision dependent on the willingness of local taxpayers to fund spending. Local communities may also have a different set of priorities to national government.
These tensions will, I feel, only increase and I am far from certain that the ramifications have been thought through.
Underlying this is the situation where taxation as a percentage of GDP is at a 49 year-high, and there is survey evidence that resistance to further increases in taxation is growing.
An eye-opener for me has been the extent to which long-term success in delivering economic prosperity for the town and district depends on membership of and the ability to influence bodies outside the district. In the past this could largely be covered by relationships with Warwickshire County Council. This is no longer true.
We are members of the West Midlands Combined Authority (WMCA). Combined authorities are now a very significant part of the governmental landscape. They have far more influence with Westminster and Whitehall than either a district or a county. The WMCA meets every month and I sit on the WMCA Board. On this month's agenda were papers on its industrial strategy and energy strategy. I raised the issue of electricity supply constraints in the area and pointed out how urgent action was needed. The position could be fraught by 2023 and the lack of capacity could have a serious impact on our growth. On infrastructure issues of this nature four years is not long. As a result the issue is now very much higher up the WMCA agenda.
I am also on the WMCA Investment Board, and my colleague Councillor Daren Pemberton is on the Housing and Land Board. It is not just the formal membership of these boards that matters; it is the informal discussions and the general impression of weight and competence we demonstrate. It means that people know us and listen to us. It gives us influence where it matters, which we can then use for the benefit of the district and town.
I am a member of the Coventry and Warwickshire Local Enterprise Partnership (CWLEP) Board. The same dynamics apply. This is the body that gave us a grant for the Henley Street project and for the RSC's costume workshop. An increasing amount of public money for investment is funnelled through LEPs so they are very important for us.
Networking and influencing is a key part of the job. It is an important part of getting things done – increasing our presence and influence as a district.
I have a strong belief that, given the status of Stratford-upon-Avon, we should ‘punch above our weight', which is not inconsiderable in any case. Since I have been Leader I have written letters to a Secretary of State, a minister on Infrastructure issues, and a different Secretary of State on rural broadband issues. I have also had telephone conference calls with the Chair of the All-Party Parliamentary Group on General Aviation. This is all about protecting the interests of the town and district now, and making it easier to create a prosperous future. I see it as a vital part of the role. Anyone who is leader will have to do the same.
Some may say, well, what difference does that make to me now? The honest answer is not much; however, over a five or 10 year period, the difference will be very significant. These activities represent a substantial investment of time and effort in creating future prosperity. In the challenging and uncertain times we live in, when our national economic performance is weak, I am confident these activities will pay future dividends.
More next month.