Welcome to District Matters, a column penned by the Leader of Stratford-on-Avon District Council, Councillor Susan Juned. Choose a date from below to read the most recent entries.
Please note: these columns have previously been published in the Stratford Herald newspaper.
Got a question for Councillor Juned? You can get in touch via Ask the Leader.
Preparing a future while dealing with the present
The District Council is responsible for delivering an array of services. Every day it plays an important role in delivering functions such as planning, licensing, business support, environmental health, preventing homelessness, providing leisure facilities, waste collecting and much more. It also works in partnership with other organisations that have an impact on everyone's life.
Local Government is facing big challenges in the years ahead in response to improved IT, changing practices and reduced finances. We are anticipating the current reduced budgets for public services to continue in the next few years and must prepare. It is our task to develop robust plans – not only in terms of financial resilience, but in finding ways to reinvent, transform and improve the way local services are delivered to better serve our communities.
We must develop our vision of what the Council will look like in the future and adapt - whilst continuing to deliver excellent services to residents and businesses.
It is in this context that we have prepared for this year's budget. The Council recently invited the Local Government Association to do a Peer Review of the Planning Service. A Peer Review of the whole Council organisation will start in the next month. The aim of both reviews is to examine what the Council does well, learn about best practice and improve the delivery and effectiveness of Council services going forward.
The District Council's budget for the year ahead will be considered by The Cabinet on the 12th February and will take into account responses from the public consultation. A debate at the Council meeting on the 26th February will agree the final budget.
Addressing a rise in rural crime, with an investment in Rural Crime Advisors to work with the Community Safety Team and police is proposed. Also proposed is support for the UBUS service which provides a vital connection between isolated communities and public services. A pilot scheme for Customer Access Terminals in Southam and Alcester libraries will enable better communication with the District Council for those unable to come to the offices or who are not online.
It is important to enable residents to stay healthy and active. A Leisure Community Instructor is proposed to provide targeted support for people with long-term health conditions. Reducing the hire fees for the use of District Council owned public playing pitches to encourage more sporting activity is also proposed.
Addressing the Cost-of-Living Crisis remains a high priority so £250,000 is in the budget to continue to protect residents from the ongoing cost of living crisis, providing grants for those most in need of support with energy bills.
Addressing Climate Change is also a high priority. By investing we can reduce the energy costs of heating swimming pools and leisure centres and reduce their carbon footprint. We can also accelerate the change in converting our refuse collection vehicles from fossil fuels to alternative technologies.
As we prepare for the future, we need to plan ahead with a fund to deliver projects over the next three years. The plan is to improve the delivery of council services, stimulate growth in the local economy, deliver better affordable homes, particularly for young people, vulnerable families facing evictions, those who are homeless and victims of domestic abuse. We also want to support the voluntary sector, Town and Parish Councils and community organisations.
Tasked to improve our services within a budget
How much residents will have to pay for district council services from April 2024, what they will get for their money and how much Stratford District Council can afford are three questions that loom large at this time of the new year.
We've been working on next year's budget for some months now, trying to get a quart into a pint pot. We've been matching the services residents currently receive with the likely money available, while thinking about our manifesto commitments as the new Liberal Democrat administration. It is our task to improve the way services are delivered for our communities – all within budget.
All this against a cost-of-living crisis and high inflation that are still making life difficult for everybody. Inflation for the council means not only higher costs and delivery charges, but also increased demands for services. All have an impact on our budget.
The good news, however, is that we are planning to maintain services and even improve them next year. We hope to make some positive announcements soon, launching new initiatives over next few months. Residents and local businesses will also soon get the chance to have their say.
Meanwhile, however, we have been trying to second-guess what central government is prepared to let us have in terms of funding. This year's provisional settlement finally came through just a few days before Christmas and for the sixth year running, it was only a 12-month settlement, rather than a multi-year commitment that would allow us to plan much better for the future.
Over the past decade, the money that central government gives to local authorities has fallen. This has partly been offset by increases in council tax and business rates, but overall, there has still been a large cut. According to the National Audit Office, local government ‘spending power' in England has fallen by over a quarter since 2010.
Central government funding has become far more complex. The Local Government Association (LGA) has estimated that there has been a four-fold increase in ‘ring fenced' funding pots since 2013/14 with an increased use of frustratingly wasteful competitive bidding.
The lion's share of council tax money collected by the district council goes to Warwickshire County Council. Less than a tenth remains at Stratford Council. Last year, more than three-quarters – 76.6% – was forwarded to the county, while the district council kept just 7.4%. The police were given another 12.8%, and towns and parishes councils got the remaining 3.2%.
The district council nevertheless provides many services with the money it receives. ‘Statutory' services, controlled by law, include waste collection, planning, housing, environmental health and licensing. Planning, for example, is a highly controlled service. Even the fees paid for major planning applications are set nationally and currently do not cover the true cost of processing which is borne by local taxpayers.
Some services – known as ‘discretionary' – are for the council to decide. These provide more opportunity to make a difference for residents. They include leisure facilities, economic development which is essential for ensuring a robust local economy and addressing climate change.
More details about our proposed budget for the next financial year from April 2024 will be unveiled over the next few weeks and opened up for public consultation. I urge you to make your views known. I welcome comments from residents and local businesses alike.