Welcome to District Matters, a column penned by the Leader of Stratford-on-Avon District Council, Councillor Tony Jefferson. Choose a date from below to read the most recent entries.
Please note: these columns have previously been published in the Stratford Herald newspaper.
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.
It's Christmas time, so naturally our thoughts move to setting the budget for 2019/20 and the five-year financial forecast for the council.
Funding for councils from central government has been reduced significantly. So, we have to take very challenging decisions to ensure that we remain financially sustainable. Other than New Homes Bonus, the council is not expecting any support from government in 2019/20, compared to the £3.9m that we received five years ago.
The New Homes Bonus scheme provides a financial incentive to provide new housing. However, it appears that this scheme will be coming to an end, although we do not know when and how. We currently get about £4 million in New Homes Bonus so this is a very significant issue. We have also benefited from the growth of businesses in the area through increased business rates receipts. Central government is being consistent in that this scheme is due to be overhauled next year without, at this stage, any indication of how this will affect us.
So, when we have been discussing the shape of the budget we have many unknowns to ponder and we realise that good news going forward is in short supply. The impact is not so much in 2019/20, but the impact in the medium term is very substantial. We do, however, have a strong starting point; our reserves are healthy, although there is a minimum level of reserves below which we cannot fall or our ‘Section 151 Officer' (accountant) gets cross with us.
We entered our budget process at the beginning of November well aware of the uncertainties. The entire process takes about six weeks because we scrutinise everything very thoroughly. We do expect the local government finance settlement for 2019 before Christmas. Unsurprisingly, it has been delayed by Brexit.
Budget proposals will be presented to Cabinet on 14 January 2019. We then consult with local businesses and residents. We will be listening to your views and therefore I urge you to take part, although there have been years when no one has turned up. Remember, it is your money we are spending.
In setting the budget we have to balance the level of Council Tax against the services we have to provide, and that our residents expect, coupled with investing in the future. In terms of the future we have some very exciting proposals which we are currently implementing, including helping businesses and upgrading our CCTV infrastructure.
Every time we make decisions about Council Tax, we think very hard about the impact upon our residents. If the council increases Council Tax by 1%, this generates around £75,000 of additional income, although this is small compared to the sums at risk from central government.
In relation to Council Tax the current average bill in our district is £1,765.61; of this the district only keeps £137.07, with the rest paid to Warwickshire County Council (£1,363.68), Warwickshire Police and Crime Commissioner (£203.98) and the individual town and parish councils (£60.88). We are well aware that there have been some large increases recently as the government allows increases for adult social care for the county council and provision of extra funding for the police.
So, with that, have a very Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year,
Stratford-upon-Avon was extremely successful in the latest bidding round for project financing from the Coventry & Warwickshire Local Enterprise Partnership (CWLEP). Out of 22 bids submitted, only four were successful – and of those, two were from Stratford-upon-Avon.
The Royal Shakespeare Company (RSC) was successful in a bid for £1 million to help fund the transformation of its Costume Workshops into an efficient facility for its award-winning craftspeople, revolutionising working conditions and increasing employment opportunities. It will enable public access for the first time and will create an innovative new visitor attraction around the RSC's world-renowned costumes.
I was very pleased to provide a letter of support for this bid and its success adds to the tourist attractions in Stratford.
The district council made a joint bid with The Shakespeare Birthplace Trust for the improvement of Henley Street. The bid was completed to very tight timescales. The success of the bid was in large part down to the development of very close working relationships with the Birthplace Trust. This lays some firm foundations for the way in which I see the key heritage and cultural organisations in Stratford working in the future. Working together in close co-operation has to be the way forward.
It may not be fully appreciated, but heritage, culture and tourism is a very competitive ‘industry', though I am sure many people will blanch at the thought of it being described as an industry. Nevertheless it is. There is massive investment being made by direct competitors, which now includes the Chinese. We have to keep pace or we will fall further behind.
Setting all of the above in the context of tourism's impact on Stratford, it is the second largest industry in the district. There are roughly 6.2 million visitors a year, it is estimated to generate some £409 million for the district, and it employs about 7,600 people. Tourism and the income generated underlies why we can enjoy the range of facilities, shops and restaurants we can. They are far from typical of a town of our size.
What has become very apparent to me over the past few months is that we need even more investment to exploit to the full our world class brands of Shakespeare and Stratford-upon-Avon. I have already raised at a CWLEP board meeting my view that, as a sub-region, we are not exploiting the brands for the wider benefit, especially with China. The same issue has been raised both with the West Midlands Combined Authority (WMCA) and Jeremy Wright MP. It has become apparent in the past week that the message has got across to both the CWLEP and the WMCA.
This shift in perception should enable us to lever additional investment into the town. As an illustration, I have been told that the museum, library and archive collections of the Birthplace Trust and RSC are jointly designated by Arts Council England as being of national and international significance. It seems obvious to me that opportunities exist to make more of these assets in terms of display and public engagement. If the district council, the Birthplace Trust and the RSC work closely together then it should be easier to build the case for future investment.
That was a very specific example, but I think we also need a masterplan and vision of how we invest in Stratford-upon-Avon over the next decade to create a town and a destination that is worthy of our heritage.
We have very recently held two events that underline our efforts to involve people and key stakeholders in tackling issues and helping shape the future of our district. I am a strong believer in involving people to get the best results.
The first was the open day on broadband connectivity held on 20 September. This is a key issue for people and businesses outside Stratford-upon-Avon itself.
In our very recent Business Survey, 47% of respondents outside Stratford town reported that improving broadband connections was vital for assisting business and the economy.
The open day was attended by 23 suppliers and agencies, together with over 150 residents and businesses from across the district. The feedback we received has been excellent; one stated that they believed that this was the first event of its kind that has been organised anywhere in the country. (We are not afraid to be innovative.) All the suppliers agreed that given the rural nature of the district there was no one solution that would work across the whole area.
There will be a report to The Cabinet on 5 November (an auspicious date) to move the project forward.
The second was a strategic stakeholder event held on 26 September. Around 25 people from businesses and other key organisations attended providing input and comments on the Draft Local Industrial and Economic Development Strategy for the district. This builds on our activity over the past few months in having a much more proactive series of meetings with key stakeholders in the district.
As a district our economic performance over the past decade has been excellent; on almost every metric we are above the national and regional benchmarks. We believe that the potential for economic growth in the district is tremendous. I am amazed by the potential we have and we need to do everything we can to ensure the potential is translated into reality.
The level of participation and energy displayed at the event clearly indicated how pleased people were to be involved. Indeed a number of people want to see me individually to discuss opportunities and issues.
The significance of having a robust Economic Development Strategy cannot be overstated. It signals intent to all the businesses and organisations in the district. With their participation, the Strategy will be firmly grounded in reality and it enables us all to be on the same page when prospects for the district are discussed in variety of forums.
The Strategy also has to align with the Economic and Industrial Strategies developed by the Local Enterprise Partnership and the West Midlands Combined Authority. As such it is a key foundation for making effective bids for funds for projects and investment in the district to enable our growth. The feedback from the event will be built into the final version, which will go to Full Council in December. This suggested that the Strategy should run through to 2031 rather than 2023 so it aligns with our Core Strategy.
My personal view is that if we have a strong and dynamic local economy it creates opportunities for all and that living in a prosperous and thriving district benefits the vast majority of people.
I strongly believe that the purpose of leadership is to get things done or make things happen; it is not about self-aggrandisement. I can't do everything myself. There are very real limits to what any individual can do on their own. Maximising impact means that people have to be pulling in the same direction and have to feel that, within broad guidelines, they are empowered to take decisions and get things done.
Much time during my first 100 days as Leader - and it was 100 days on 23 August - has been spent creating a shared sense of direction, building a level of trust and creating a culture where people feel as though they can get on and do things. The key to making this work well has been the way in which we all talk to each other and keep each other in the loop. In particular this has meant breaking down any perceived ‘us and them' barriers between officers and Cabinet members.
The discussions we have as a group are much more open and free flowing; everyone round the table has a voice and that voice will be heard. (This has occasionally caused surprise when I have asked people for their views.) Compared to a stilted formality, we can focus on issues, solutions and decisions, and there is room for disagreement and intensive debate. Decisions are better as a result.
I find that there is much greater commitment and enthusiasm and more gets done. There is a sense that things are much more joined up and, despite the essential formality of the way a council has to operate, things happen quicker.
In concrete terms we can identify some 20 initiatives we have been working on in the first 100 days in addition to ‘business as usual'. Some of these, such as Wellesbourne Airfield, come out of left field. We have, however, been able to respond quickly and, because we have a deliberate policy of becoming more engaged with stakeholders, identify potential synergies. What we are also doing is resetting the bar on ambition. The 21st initiative appeared this week, and within the week we had begun to see much greater potential for building on this initially quite modest proposal.
I am really proud of the way everyone has responded to the change in leadership and the challenges we face. With the challenges have come opportunities and I am beginning to realise the sheer scale of the opportunities that we as a district have. My role is to ensure that we find creative and innovative ways to react to the challenges and maximise the opportunities.
Part of the reason why people are so committed is that we are willing to be creative, innovative and ambitious. In short, it's exciting, and exciting is more motivational than boring.
The ambition is for the district as a whole, and what I see ahead of us are some real transformational opportunities that will lay the foundations for prosperity for perhaps 20 years.
Not a bad start.
You will see more results in the coming months.
As many of you will already be aware, one area the district council is currently focusing activity on is Wellesbourne Airfield. The airfield is an important asset for the UK General Aviation Industry and our district, and there is a clear policy position under the district council's adopted Core Strategy 2011-2031 that the site be preserved for aviation purposes. The Government Framework for UK aviation also identifies that such airfields are particularly important for local businesses and there is a strategy of maintaining a viable network of business and general aviation airports. The Wellesbourne Neighbourhood Plan, produced by local people, also wanted the airfield retained as operational.
Sadly, the owners of the site appear to have no interest in continuing aviation activity and have terminated the tenancies of the airfield business, with aspirations to develop the site for non-aviation uses. This is directly contrary to the district council's Core Strategy. There is already considerable concern in Wellesbourne about the number of houses recently built in the village and there would be opposition to yet another massive housing development.
So, there are many reasons why Wellesbourne Airfield should remain operational and that is why the District Council is taking action. We have a clear policy position to defend and that is what we are doing.
The district council is currently in dialogue with the owners of the site and we hope to be able to negotiate a purchase of the airfield to secure its future for aviation activity. If a negotiated purchase cannot be achieved, The Cabinet has resolved to use its powers of compulsory purchase to acquire the site. This is a long and complex process and I would not expect a quick resolution, but we are taking action. Believe me it is frustrating and sad that our Core Strategy is being ignored in this way.
I had an interesting time at the Local Government Association Conference held in Birmingham recently. I have always been interested in Economics and Strategy and at one session I was able to raise the issue of the lack of power supplies. I wasn't given the most helpful of responses. We can't keep building and expecting industry to expand without looking at capacity issues, whether that is power supplies, water, or infrastructure. There most definitely needs to be closer links between housing development and infrastructure planning – something we are always campaigning for as a Council. Perhaps one day Westminster and Whitehall will grasp the blindingly obvious.
When asked when the audience felt councils had been performing at their best, the majority answer was “now". Given the pressure we have been under, that is a hell of an achievement.
Business also continues on the progress of our strategic projects, including over £1.1m investment for regeneration projects in Studley; upgrading the CCTV system across the district; and £0.5m to expand high speed broadband to rural communities. All aiming to ‘make a difference' for residents and businesses.
It has now been almost a month since I became Leader of Stratford-on-Avon District Council, although this work started before the formal election by Annual Council - the Cabinet had to be appointed, the committee membership had to be selected and lots of other routine, but important, work was undertaken.
The next step was to find out what was going on: some I knew, but a lot I didn't. When I asked for all projects to be pulled together so I had a clear picture, 12 pages listing all of the projects were produced. It is, as I discovered, easy to underestimate how much the council has to do.
The week after my formal appointment got off to a flying start with a meeting of the Coventry and Warwickshire Local Enterprise Partnership. There was a very positive welcome from the Board; however, as a result, three more meetings have been put in the diary.
Then there was an internal meeting to start work on the council's Corporate Strategy for the period 2019-2023. This is likely to be a challenging period; we know that the district is performing very well economically and one of the challenges is to maintain that momentum. We also anticipate a continuation of the squeeze on revenue from central government, so we have to exploit our current strong financial position at speed.
A meeting of the South Warwickshire Community Safety Partnership (which I chair) followed and at the end of the week I represented the council at a meeting of the West Midlands Combined Authority, which generated another meeting for the diary.
So, that was week one. I won't bore with a description of weeks two, three and four, but it's still moving at a pace.
As I mentioned above there are 12 pages of projects which need to be delivered. Working closely with the management team I'm aiming to accelerate the delivery of the key priority projects, and at a deeper level we intend to change the culture to make it a much more ‘can do' and delivery-focused council, being more proactive and responsive to a changing environment. Initial signs are that this is welcomed by people. One of my most used phrases has become: “Get on with it". I have also propped the office door open as a symbol of openness, and I am trying to create a climate where people feel free to wander in and discuss things and challenge. However, these things all take time to develop.
So, it has been extremely busy, often fraught and quite tiring, but also exciting. My aim is to ‘make a difference' and together with the Cabinet and the management team we will.
More next month.