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.
Got a question for Councillor Jefferson? You can get in touch via Ask the Leader.
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.