This is the archive of 2023 District Matters (June to December), a column penned by the Leader of Stratford-on-Avon District Council, Councillor Susan Juned.
Better homes mean better lives
I have to thank my local WI for the subject of this month's column. Every year, members of the WI vote on a shortlist of resolutions to take forward for further debate and selection at their Annual Meeting. One of the resolutions this year considers the impact of poor housing conditions on health and wellbeing.
As a District Councillor, my casework has always included complaints about housing and housing conditions. The District Council does not own its own housing stock, but has a responsibility under the Housing Act 2004. It has powers allowing it to take action against Category 1 hazards, including damp, mould and excessive cold.
As winter starts to bite, my colleagues and I know that our casework will grow with reports of damp and mould in peoples' homes. Many of these will involve families with children. Most will occur in housing owned by housing associations or the private sector. Over the past two years, the rise in energy prices has pushed up the number of cases and made them more acute.
In the past month alone, I have had three cases reported to me. The District Council has a Private Sector Housing team who work with the housing associations and private property owners to combat damp and mould in rented housing. Act on Energy has caseworkers who are able to give advice on energy grants, while Citizens Advice can address wider issues. All have assisted me in my casework while I challenge the landlord concerned.
But we need to look forward. We need better strategies to improve our housing stock. No family should have to live in a home that is below the minimum standards and plagued by dampness and disrepair. Far too many people are on waiting lists for decent, affordable housing. The indefinite delay in ending ‘no fault' evictions for private tenants are adding to the list as interest rates bite.
Affordable, well-built homes – as well as infrastructure such as schools and GP services built to the highest possible standards – save money for the NHS. Affordable housing, delivered through planning obligations on developers, were estimated by the Royal Town Planning Institute to have saved £240million for the NHS in 2019.
According to the Centre for Ageing Better, every £1 spent on improving warmth in homes occupied by vulnerable residents yields £4 in health benefits.
A failure to put in place meaningful energy-efficient building policies leaves a lifetime legacy of homes where families pay higher bills. The number of households installing energy efficiency measures fell rapidly from 2014 to 2022 and are only now beginning to rise again.
Nobody is arguing about the benefits of good housing across the board. But the necessary steps to get there are not currently good enough. More needs to be done to address affordability, achieve health benefits and produce a lower carbon footprint.
Affordable, well-built houses with the proper infrastructure need to be planned from the beginning, not as an expensive afterthought. A balanced mix of affordable homes for young people, families and those who wish to downsize helps to support healthy communities.
We need a proactive approach to flood risk
On Friday 20 October, we were reminded, once again, of the real damage done by flooding.
River and surface water flooding caused by extreme weather events will occur more frequently in future years, according to the government advisory body, the Committee on Climate Change. Knowing this, our towns and villages need to be better prepared and protected.
However, we have been here before. In past years too many of us have had to give evidence of the harm done to our communities by flood events.
An Independent Review listened to what we had to say after the Easter floods in 1998. The then Deputy Prime Minister even came to Stratford-on-Avon to see for himself the damage done to the area around the Royal Shakespeare Theatre. My hometown of Alcester was inundated with over 70 houses affected.
After another even more damaging record flooding event in 2007, many of us gave evidence to the Pitt Review and I submitted evidence to the 2007-8 House of Commons Special Report on Flooding. In Alcester, work was done to maintain and repair flood defences and install pumps, but these only brought the structures up to original 1950/60's standards.
This week I found myself on a training programme on flood management and risk and heard many of the recommendations given by previous reports still being repeated. It left me wondering: are we actually any more resilient to future flood events than we were in 2007?
On Friday, 20 October, surface water flooded major roads including the A46 and back roads across the District became impassable. In too many areas of the District, the drains were unable to cope. In the town of Alcester, the flood defences came very close to being overtopped. Henley-in-Arden's High Street became a fast-flowing river, blocked to traffic at one end by a stranded coach.
In November 2022, the National Infrastructure Commission produced a report on the risks associated with surface water flooding. It indicated that, as a nation, we are struggling to address the problem properly and not taking a sufficiently proactive approach to invest in solutions.
It called on Government, as well as water and sewerage companies, to invest in solutions including sustainable drainage and to take a much more proactive approach to increasing resilience.
Nationally, our approach must change from addressing incidents after the event to one that encourages resilience. We need a proactive partnership that tackles routine maintenance as well as preventive work.
With its strategic oversight role, the Environment Agency must work in partnership with bodies such as Ofwat to ensure water and sewerage companies as well as highway authorities invest in solutions to address surface water flooding. More nature-based solutions to river flooding would complement the hard engineering approach of defence bunds. All of these organisations will need to work closely with local government.
Local government currently has to bid for funding for many of the schemes that would address these problems. Longer-term plans need to be produced jointly across all the relevant organisations with funding devolved to a local level to address localised flooding.
During the recent flooding incidents, we once again saw the value of communities and volunteers. They need much more support as well as praise for all the work they do.
Planning needs a green plan
Stratford District Council is working on a future Local Plan. This Plan provides a framework for future development in the district. It is a Government requirement that Local Plans should be produced and reviewed every five years and be consistent with national legislation and guidance.
Without an up-to-date Local Plan, councils can lack the policies they need to prevent inappropriate or damaging development in their area. Development can still take place, but there is little or no ability to control where development should go. There is also less ability to require the schools, open space, health facilities and community halls needed to support communities. This district has had experience of the development that comes without a Local Plan in place and the lack of vital infrastructure that result.
The Local Plan helps us to determine the mix of homes in our area. Over the past 30 years, across the country, there has been a shift in the type of housing built by private developers towards larger homes and away from two and 1-bedroom homes. In addition, the numbers of social and affordable-to-rent houses have dropped. Affordability has become a problem with fewer genuinely affordable homes delivered in recent years. The Government definition of an affordable home is up-to 80% of the market rate, which in our area is not affordable. Having genuinely affordable housing in place helps young people and saves on homelessness-related costs.
Local Plans have to be able to address needs and opportunities in relation to housing, the local economy, community facilities and infrastructure. However, they must also safeguard the environment, enable adaptation to climate change and help secure high quality accessible design.
Government legislation covers much of the process, but the law and policy is not necessarily well integrated. A major gap is in the response to climate change. The planning system is a key lever to make sure that buildings, transport systems and land use help us to adapt to the future challenges of climate change.
Recent research commissioned by the Climate Change Committee highlighted the lack of key guidance on addressing climate change. Effective planning is crucial to tackling the climate crisis and, according to their research, England has failed to keep up with global best practice.
The CCC report said that there is a lack of clarity and detail as to how local authorities should tackle climate change and adaptation. A key quote was: 'Addressing climate change robustly through the planning system will save money in the long run and offer significant economic opportunities. Failing to adapt and deal with climate change will lead to severe social, health and economic consequences'.
On a recent Ward visit, residents said that putting in place the structures needed to build a community should have more importance in the thinking behind a Local Plan. We have to do more to empower communities, protecting them and providing the foundations of consent. Congratulations go to Parish Councils with Neighbourhood Plans as this provides us with a clear vision of community preferences.
Councillors play a vital role in making sure that the Local Plan takes account of local circumstances and community wishes. Our role is help make sure that the wishes and needs of our residents are expressed, that the most sustainable choices are made and that we are preparing for the future of our grandchildren.
Planning for the next four years
Here at the District Council we are in the process of drawing up our strategy for the next four years. We are developing a new Council Plan that will govern the actions we take between now and 2027. This Plan will take into account how we work with our partners and how we can deliver benefits for our residents. It will have a public consultation stage so that residents can assist us with their comments.
This Plan will address the cost-of-living crisis, health and wellbeing, economic development, climate change and biodiversity as well as housing that meets the needs of the district and its residents.
Ahead of next winter, we are looking at the help available to meet the cost-of-living crisis. A working group is looking at ways to improve our working relationship with housing associations. We want to ensure a sustainable future for the Shopmobility scheme, and we will be launching a new fund to help communities in the District tackle climate change in their own areas.
Local government can play a vital role in delivering services which the government in Whitehall needs to recognise. There is a big agenda to tackle at a national level: addressing health and wellbeing, preventing further damage to our environment and meeting climate change goals. Local government is an essential part in delivering that agenda.
In an era of government constraints on local government, we have to be able to think more creatively about our relationships, partnerships and the delivery of public services.
Modern economies depend on us understanding the power we have in our own areas. Councillors are the voice of our communities, raising concerns in a professional way and working with Council staff to address issues and make the changes that are needed.
Working with others locally helps to deliver the potential of local government. It is all about teamwork; Whitehall directives cannot do it all. It is time for an honest conversation about our funding and the ways in which we work together.
Here in Stratford District, it is essential the new Liberal Democrat administration establishes good working relationships with its partners. We must maintain and develop our partnerships with organisations such as the County Council. There have been a number of tensions recently with talk of local government reorganisation in the West Midlands, but these are now being addressed.
Partnership becomes increasingly important for services that the District Council cannot deliver itself, such as public transport, social care and health care. Working together we can achieve better outcomes for residents.
Universities, businesses and voluntary organisations can offer a wealth of innovation, imagination and expertise to help us to solve some of the problems facing our communities. We must be open to new ideas. And of course we must maintain our good working relationships with the experienced and knowledgeable staff at the District Council.
Being the Council Leader is an exciting challenge that I'm relishing. I have done many things in my professional life, but this is proving to be the most fulfilling. One of the goals I've set for myself is to visit the different parts of the district – the 100 or so different parishes, spread over nearly 400 square miles – and speak to residents, parish councils, voluntary organisations and local businesses. Their input will be vital if we are to achieve our aspirations for Stratford residents.
This month sees the start of our first budget process, balancing what we want to achieve with the money available. We already know the limitations on government resourcing, so there will be considerable financial constraints on what we can achieve. We are determined, however, to meet the challenges and make Stratford District a better place in which to live and work.
Rising energy and other everyday costs of living have affected most residents in our District over the past two years. As Councillors we see regularly that some of our residents have been impacted much more than others and that paying energy bills is a problem that, unfortunately, is not about to go away soon.
A recent report from the Office of Budget Responsibility (1) has confirmed just how financial and other Government decisions made in the 2020's have been so dangerous to public and private finances and the challenges ahead. The report makes grim reading.
On energy, we now have some of the highest energy prices in Europe and remain one of the most gas dependent economies. Grant schemes for insulation and energy efficiency measures have had a rocky history in the past decade. Despite Government interventions, average energy and gas payments almost doubled between 2020 and 2023. Some households faced with this rise in costs chose to reduce their consumption, others had no choice but to pay, even when it meant going without other necessities.
In this District, we saw an increase in the number of families, mainly in the private and social rented sector, reporting damp and mould in their homes last winter and increased numbers suffering from fuel poverty. We cannot allow a repeat of these case numbers this coming winter. It is crucial that property owners, whether private or social, deliver an effective response to complaints of damp and mould and the wider issues of poor conditions in tenants' homes.
The cost-of-living crisis is not just about energy. Although food is a smaller part of household budgets than energy, it is an item needed and paid for every day. Overall food prices have risen steadily over the past year and were 17.3% higher in June 2023 than a year previously. Even basic items such as carrots have seen a rise of 34% over the past year.
I am fortunate to live in a fantastically supportive community. Here in the town of Alcester, the work done by the Town Council and by voluntary groups who run the community fridge, a food bank, warm hubs, a dementia cafe and a holiday lunch club for children has been truly inspiring. Across the District, many other volunteer groups and parish councils are working equally as hard for their communities.
Such initiatives rely on the generosity of local communities who do fantastic work, but the rise of such need is a sad reflection on our times. Charities such as the Trussell Trust are reporting a continuing increase in demand for food bank assistance. Other charities are raising awareness of continuing financial instability in household budgets as rents and mortgage costs increase.
Looking ahead, bills are likely to remain high this coming winter. We must continue to give support to make sure that people can meet their energy costs, be helped with energy efficiency advice and have financial advice to address debt over the next winter. We will need to continue our support for the work of the voluntary sector and community groups and work ever more closely with the health sector.
A range of useful guidance on how to access help and advice is available on the District Council website via the Cost-of-Living Support tab.
(1) Fiscal Risks and Sustainability - Office of Budget Responsibility Report July 2023
Now, more than ever, we have to face up to the challenges of climate change that lie ahead. Decisive action is needed if we are to achieve our goals of meeting national targets. That is the conclusion of the recent 2023 UK Climate Change Committee (CCC) Report to Parliament on annual progress in reducing CO2 emissions. It makes for depressing reading.
At all levels of government, we need the policies and finance to enable, support and empower people to make low carbon lifestyle choices. This will lead to healthier lives and deliver financial benefits. Delivering these policies and raising the necessary finance will not be easy. We need the national government to assist, and we need local communities on board.
The CCC report highlighted one government failure in particular. Insufficient support has been given nationally for home insulation programmes. This left many families struggling to pay energy bills last winter. British Gas has already said that household energy bills are likely to remain high for the foreseeable future. Insulating a home delivers the duel benefit of lower energy bills and reduced CO2 emissions.
Climate change is already here. Human activity has led to 1.2°C of global warming from pre-industrial levels, resulting in damaging impacts on lives, infrastructure and ecosystems. Now there is around a 66% chance that the world will warm by more than 1.5°C by 2027.
Keeping below 1.5°C would limit the risks and help protect key ecosystems. Going beyond 1.5°C risks wilder, more unpredictable and extreme weather. The more we overshoot 1.5°C, the harder it will be to control. This June has been the hottest on record in the UK.
In 2020, Stratford-on Avon District Council accepted my Notice of Motion asking the District Council to do more to tackle climate change. I chaired the working group that reported in 2021 with an action plan. As the new Leader and Chair of the Climate Change Panel, I have requested a review of progress with the action plan.
My interest in the impacts of climate change started when I attended a lecture at the University of Birmingham given by an eminent professor and early author for the International Panel on Climate Change. Both my Master's degree and my PhD were in biodiversity. I then developed a career in resource management, renewable energy and climate-change related subjects.
In 1999, the District Council showed vision in funding an energy efficiency centre – now we need similar vision and adequate finance from government to tackle the challenges ahead. Investment in renewable energy and household energy efficiency go some way to tackling the problem but we also need to support local businesses to achieve resource efficiency and avoid the risks related to high-energy costs.
I recently attended Alcester Town Council's climate change workshop. Organised with an external grant from Warwick and Stratford District Councils and support from Council officers, the aim was to enable work with the local community. So many local people are now beginning to organise action on climate change, and they need our support to move forward.
All our decisions must ensure that we consider the impact of climate change on the residents we serve and on their environment. Sustainable transport, flood prevention and healthy green spaces must be in our plan. We all benefit from a healthy, green environment. We must continue to lead the fight against climate change.
This last set of local elections produced the biggest change at Stratford-on-Avon District Council for 22 years. And, for the first time in the Council's history, it will be led by a Liberal Democrat majority.
At the Annual Council meeting on 24 May, we welcomed many brand-new Councillors to the 41-strong chamber. At the meeting, I was pleased to see a good spread of ages from early 20s to much older as well as a better mix of men and women. The Liberal Democrat Group now has 25 Councillors, including 11 new members of the team. This balance of new Councillors – with the ability to bring fresh thinking to the Council – and experienced Councillors - able to lead and put ambitious policies into place - will be positive for the District.
All of the new Councillors are currently undergoing the intensive training that is essential to their new roles; representing residents effectively, contributing to the Council's policies and promoting good governance of the area. The most important part of their job though is helping residents of their wards with their issues and problems. If you have a new Councillor - do say hello to them. I know they will be very pleased to meet you.
Knocking on doors this year has led to more conversations about national and local politics than I can ever remember in my 30+ years' experience as a Councillor. The messages were clear: residents are not happy with national politics, they want a Council that listens to local concerns and they want a Council that represents the whole of the District. They want a Council able to engage with those responsible for poor quality housing, a lack of school places, stretched health services, sewage in rivers and for poor public transport as well as for the condition of our roads, pavements and high streets.
However, Local Government is facing external pressures including a potential loss of income from Central Government. We must ensure that our voice is heard at a government level. Too often national policies have disadvantaged this District and have not supported our residents in the way they should.
The Liberal Democrat manifesto set out an ambitious set of aims and objectives. We want to support local people, work with communities and tackle the everyday problems as well as deal locally with much bigger issues such as climate change and a deteriorating environment. This means providing excellent, value-for-money services that deliver now while at the same time ensuring we leave the district a better place for our grandchildren.
One of the first things we've done, for example, is changed the way the Council leadership is scrutinised and held to account for the Council's activities and spending. Instead of the ruling party chairing the scrutinising committee, its chair and vice-chair now come from the Conservative and Green opposition.
We have many challenges ahead of us, but it is important that we continue to listen and reflect on the priorities of our residents and their communities across the District. Our ambition is to lead and support the District and our communities so that Stratford-on-Avon District Council becomes known for its record of success as a community leader.
There is a great deal to be done in the months ahead.