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.
Well, it has been pretty eventful since my last leader's column and I have had some new experiences. This is all down to Covid-19.
Just in case people are unaware of how the decisions on Tiers are made the criteria are:
When we looked at the data for Stratford-on-Avon District we realised that our data was way below the average for Warwickshire. Indeed, the day after the decisions on Tiers was announced, the Financial Times published an interesting chart summarising Indicator 1. This showed Stratford-on-Avon District at the very bottom of the areas in Tier 3 and below about 75% of those in Tier 2. This is why we took the action to initiate a Judicial Review. It was not an easy decision, after all one does not commence a legal challenge to government every day. We also took expert specialist legal advice before embarking on our challenge.
What we were not aware of at the time was that the Leaders of Coventry, Solihull and Warwickshire had written to the Secretary of State for Health requesting that they be treated as a cluster. Had we been aware of this initiative, then we are sure the legal advice would have been not to proceed.
One of the underlying reasons that we made the challenge was the very serious impact being in Tier 3 has on our hospitality industry. This is against a context where it has been estimated that we are the fourth most heavily impacted council area in the country and the worst affected in the West Midlands. The feedback I have had from businesses has been harrowing. Indeed for every email, and other contact, I have had for every comment against the action we took there have been about 10 in support. What is also very apparent is that people relate strongly to our area and not even Warwickshire as a whole, let alone Coventry and Solihull.
I should make clear that the tone of many of the comments I received was that of genuine anger and much support for our hospitality businesses.
I have now been on three virtual meetings with government, the last on Friday 11 December. At all meetings there was very robust challenge to the decisions on Tiers from across the West Midlands.
I should make absolutely clear that I do not envy the decisions the government has to take. However I think that two points are well worth making:
One final personal comment on Covid-19, dealing with the media is both tiring and stressful.
Meanwhile, the other work of the council continues, we are still wrestling with the budget challenges and we are still developing our ever closer working relationship with Warwick District Council. We have also gained a whole new issue that affects the east of the District with the impact of the HS2 construction work.
So, a challenging time and, as 2020 draws to a close both councillors and officers are looking forward to a break to recharge our batteries for all the challenges 2021 will bring.
I wish you a Merry Christmas and a happy, and safe, New Year.
Winter is coming, the clocks have altered and the days are getting much shorter. As I write this COVID-19 numbers are increasing and another four week lockdown has been announced.
I am picking up a much greater divergence of opinion on COVID-19 now. There appear to be an increasing number of people saying that we need to accept that we are just going to have to get used to living with the virus. Yet, there are still many people extremely worried about catching the virus. The next month may be a time of increasing tensions and we will all have to appreciate that people may have very different views for very valid reasons.
I cannot help but think that this will be the last time such drastic action as a lockdown can be taken. It appears to me as though the emerging reality is that, even with and effective vaccine, we are going to have to recognise that COVID-19 will become endemic, a bit like flu. There appears to be a reluctance to consider what this means and how we all have to adapt to a new situation. It is also clear that it will take many months for the vaccine to protect a substantial part of the population. So, in the meantime it will be ‘business as usual' closely monitoring the situation and with the prospect of ending up in higher tiers with greater restrictions.
For our District there is no doubt that the month long lockdown will increase the damage to our local economy. Hospitality, tourism and retail will again be hard hit. Unemployment will inevitable increase and any recovery will be pushed even further into the future.
It is amazing how much bad news one can get into four short paragraphs. However, denial and a refusal to face reality is the worst possible response.
I have said before that we have a good Cabinet team and a good officer team. We have no doubts as to the scale of the challenges we face.
On the subject of challenges; we are now turning our minds to the Council Budget for 2021/22 and the Medium Term Financial Plan, which runs for five years from 2021/22. Even before the announcement of the lockdown the picture did not look good. We have established a cross party Council Recovery Advisory Group to ensure that we fully understand the position and that we appreciate the scale and nature of decisions that we will have to take. There is much detailed analysis work underway. The missing part of the equation at the moment is the level of funding that we will receive from central government and the scope we will have for raising council tax. Until we have that information, which we may not get until January then we will not know the scale of the actions we have to take. We will, however, be fully prepared'
Working together with Warwick District to create a ‘Super District' and the potential cost savings that will unlock assumes increased significance. Work on joint procurement of a new waste contract is now well underway and will be a significant help in containing costs in the medium term.
One action we desperately need to take is to invest in the future. This is difficult when our finances are crippled. We are working very hard to secure funding from external sources. However, what is not helpful is the picture people have of Stratford-on-Avon as an extremely prosperous area that does not need short term help. This is why it has been so important to get across the message that we are the fourth hardest hit local authority in the country and the worst hit in the West Midlands. My view is that we need short term help to get us over two potentially difficult years then we will bounce back.
Our recovery will depend on the resilience, adaptability and skills of our people. Despite all the short term issues there are there is a strong foundation on which we can build. These strengths give me great confidence in our future. Meanwhile we will do our very best to navigate safely through the storms that are upon us.
The Leader takes a look at the economic impact of COVID-19 on the District
(Additional post from the Leader not published in the Stratford Herald)
During the Covid crisis it is clear that Government has been striving to strike a balance between restricting the spread of the virus and keeping the economy going – and balance is a key word when it comes to local matters.
Mind you, it is a slightly different balance. We have to remain optimistic that we will get through this, that we have a strong and resilient area and there are many good things happening in all areas of our community.
However, there is no shying away from the fact that the pandemic has had a seismic impact on our economy, and our district has been hit harder than most areas. This will only be exacerbated by the second lockdown.
The number of people in the district who are claiming benefit has tripled since the outbreak, and – while there is a lag in the data – we think we are about to hit a surge in unemployment with the end of furlough.
And when you consider that a couple of months ago if you added together people on self-employed support scheme and those on furlough it equated to 43 per cent of our working population, which is a huge number.
As everyone knows we had an extremely low level of benefit claimants pre-Covid, and finding people for available posts was the issue. How things can change.
We are believed to be the fourth worst impacted district in the country and that is down to the combination of being a major tourism and hospitality region – Stratford alone attracts around three million visitors a year – and the manufacturing we have on our patch.
We are concentrating on trying to position the economy for the future and ensuring we keep things on track which will benefit the area in medium term, as well as dealing with the day-to-day.
We have had, for example, a £1.5 million grant from the Coventry and Warwickshire LEP for the River Corridor Project. We have put £600,000 of section 106 money into that as well and it is now hitting the design stage. That will enhance the attractiveness of the town for visitors.
We are fortunate in having the Wellesbourne Campus of the University of Warwick which is being developed and has just attracted Lotus to the area, while the Quinton Rail Technology Centre is under new ownership and undertaking some very exciting work.
Like everyone, the council has taken a massive hit on income. We estimate that we will be 25 per cent down on income and it will be one hell of a challenge to balance the books.
It is a question of coping as best we can and I think next year will be a struggle, and I don't see a real recovery until 2022 continuing into 2023.
Across the board I think people have really pulled out all the stops. Businesses have had to be flexible, staff have gone the extra mile, and customers have been understanding.
And I would urge everyone to continue their fantastic support of local businesses – it's been tremendous so far and it will prove invaluable if it continues.
As a council we swung into action very quickly indeed to ensure that grants were issued as quickly as possible to those who qualified – and the teams inside the council have been magnificent in ensuring the money reached people, and, having dealt with the early crisis, we are doing everything we can to put the district on the best footing going forward.
That early work was recognised by a string of messages from businesses who, quite frankly, might not have made it through the lockdown without the support.
Being a part of the Coventry and Warwickshire LEP is brilliant for us and it has more than proved its worth over these last eight months. The ability to talk to other authorities and the private sector and to ensure we have a coherent and joined up approach to recovery will prove to be invaluable.
Its Growth Hub, in particular, has been superb in terms of what it can offer and also the intelligence it has provided.
I think everyone recognises we are in this for the long haul and that there will be more bumps in the road, but I am confident that with the assets we have, the actions we have taken and the collective spirit that our residents and business have shown, that we will emerge in as strong a state as possible.
Just when we thought that things were beginning to get back towards a more normal life and we were beginning to have face to face meetings, COVID-19 makes an unwelcomed return. This means that there could be another six months of disruption. Coming after the three months lock down, there is a fear that this could be the last straw for many businesses. The measures taken by the Chancellor will, it is well accepted, not prevent a considerable loss of jobs. I think that many people have been lulled into a false sense of security by the furlough and other schemes. This is not going to last.
Locally, July, August and early September have not been as bad as might have been feared. A good indicator of this is car park numbers which have, at times have been very close to last year's levels. However, winter is coming and this, combined with the new COVID measures, is certain to see a reduction in activity.
One of the vexed issues locally has been the Mop Fairs held under a Royal Charter. SDC also has a contract with the fair operator. I was asked very frequently why we had not cancelled the mop. The very simple answer is that we did not have any powers under which we could unilaterally cancel them. Cancelling them had to be done by negotiation and this took time, but after a lot of effort, we got there in the end. There was a small ride in place for a short time to ensure that the Royal Charter was maintained.
This is just another illustration of things that look easy from the outside are far from straightforward when we have to deal with the realities.
I can confirm what I said in last month's column that the third round settlement is not generous. At present we are forecasting that our deficit for the year will be around £4million. This will be covered by reserves; however reserves can only be used once.
Working with Warwick District Council is progressing. Julie Lewis is now a shared role between the two councils. A Head of IT has just been selected and that role is also shared between the two councils. We still need to appoint a joint Section 151 officer, which, in the current climate will be a key role. We should not underestimate the issues in creating a joint District. The two pinch points will be IT and culture. Given the state of SDC finances going forward I referred to above, the cost savings that can be made through merger are even more important.
Perhaps the most demanding issue we have had to manage recently has been the vexed issue of local government reorganisation. We have received the report from Deloitte; ‘Warwickshire: Options for the future of local government structures: phase 1'.
Three options were examined:
The options were assessed against five criteria:
The two unitary model was ranked first on four out of the five criteria. The single unitary was ranked second overall and the status quo third.
As I write this I understand that the White Paper has been deferred and I believe that it may not reappear until later next year. Nevertheless I do not believe that the status quo is sustainable in future and this issue will reappear. The work that has been done definitely will not be wasted.
There have been two planning papers issued for consultation. If adopted as they stand we would have to accommodate more houses in the District. Our response has been very robust and we have questioned many of the proposals.
Finally, as I write this column our COVID-19 cases are rising. By the time you read this action will probably have been taken.
I am sorry if this month's column is a bit longer than usual but, given the significance of the issues I think it best that people have an understanding of the key issues we are dealing with.
Well, as it turned out there was not that much respite during August. Life continued to be busy and the autumn looks hectic.
Last month I mentioned that there were 19,800 people on the furlough scheme. The latest figures show this is now just over 20,000. Indeed when I add together the number of people unemployed (3,065), the number of people on the furlough scheme (21,200) and the number of people on the self-employed income support scheme (5,500) the total is almost 30,000. This is 43% of the working population of Stratford District. With the furlough scheme beginning to wind down this is, to me, a genuinely scary number. It appears inevitable that unemployment will increase dramatically by the end of the year. I still find that many people have not grasped the magnitude of the challenge awaiting us. Facing reality is the first step in dealing effectively with issues.
It appears as though unemployment will hit across the spectrum, anecdotally a considerable number of managerial and professional jobs will be affected.
Furthermore, the latest Local Authority forecasts by KPMG show Stratford District's Gross Value Added (GVA) falling by 14.4% in 2020 and recovery in 2021 drops well short of making up the fall. (Think of GVA as a proxy for economic activity). We are the worst hit local government area in the West Midlands. This reinforces the report earlier in the year, which showed Stratford District as the fourth hardest hit area in the country.
This is important because, historically, Stratford District has been seen as prosperous and with full employment. It therefore does not need support and can look after itself. We have managed to correct that perception and these figures enable us to reinforce our current position.
Now, to turn to better news, in August at one stage our car park occupancy was almost back to 2019 levels and footfall showed a similar pattern. Thanks to the ‘Eat Out to Help Out scheme' restaurants were busy. Although car parking and footfall are very weather dependent, it demonstrates the underlying resilience of Stratford-upon-Avon. This means that it is still an attractive place to invest in leisure, hospitality and tourism. We are working hard to ensure that we get more investment and I hope that within a short time I can confirm two substantial new investments. There is one further idea that we are working together with businesses on that would be genuinely exciting.
We have heard from central government about the third round of funding. It consisted of 24-pages of bureaucratic complexity our finance people are still attempting to decipher. The initial view is that it is far from generous.
Closer working with Warwick District continues to gather pace. One management team position working across both districts is now in place and we are recruiting for another starting this week.
There are two Planning White Papers out for consultation at the moment. These could have a very significant impact on the district. Officers are currently analysing these in detail and we will be briefed on these shortly.
On local government reorganisation, we received the draft report from Deloittes last Friday. We are currently studying this very closely but, from an initial reading I think the overall tone of the report is positive. This is an issue where there are two totally legitimate but differing views. There will inevitably be robust exchanges of view.
If I look at local government reorganisation, and the White Paper has yet to be issued, and the Planning White Papers, it is hard to escape the conclusion that there is a failure to think through the full implications and impacts of these proposals. I also think that when it comes to turning proposals into reality there may be a belief in magic wands, where the reality of change tends to be a long hard slog.
Keep well and stay safe.
I really am glad it is August and things are easing off a little in terms of the number of meetings. It has been very full on since March and the weariness and tiredness is obvious in everyone. This applies to Councillors, particularly Cabinet members, and officers alike.
We have received £1.5 million in funding for the Riverside corridor project. This gives us the opportunity to create something that will make a huge difference to Stratford and significantly help our recovery. The Henley Street project is now complete with the erection of a statue to Shakespeare, and the whole thing looks very attractive.
We were also heartened by the news that Lotus are basing some of their operations on The University of Warwick Wellesbourne campus.
I think that all of these initiatives are a pattern for the future, investment will not come directly through local councils, whether District or County, but will come through other bodies, such as the CWLEP. This puts an ever greater premium on networking and representation on these bodies. Our efforts over the past two years are now bearing fruit.
The importance of investment is underlined by the fact that in July there were 19,800 people on furlough in the District and, in June, 5,500 people on the self-employed income support scheme. However, I do have real concerns about what is going to happen when these schemes end.
We have yet to hear the details of the third round of government funding for local authorities, but we have prepared as far as we can so we can react quickly when we receive the details. Meanwhile we are progressing with some immediate cost saving initiatives.
On local government reorganisation, all the Districts and Boroughs in Warwickshire have now commissioned a piece of work by Deloittes to explore all the options available. We are also, jointly, beginning a consultation exercise with residents to better understand their preferences. We expect the results early in September.
Meanwhile, we are progressing the joint working initiative with Warwick District Council. Two management team roles will be shared by Warwick and Stratford. The first will become operational very swiftly and the recruitment for the second role has started.
We await the White Paper on local government reorganisation with interest. We now believe that, at best, any reorganisation, including Warwick and Stratford Districts will not be completed before 2023.
There is work ongoing with the Local Government Boundary Commission on the number of councillors and the ward boundaries in Stratford-on-Avon District. I think there is a general acknowledgement that 36 is too few councillors to run an effective council, given the way in which workload has increased over the past few years. It is recognised that local government reorganisation may overtake this piece of work, but the Boundary Commission assure us that the work will not be wasted.
In Stratford-upon-Avon a great deal of time and effort has been spent on the vexed issue of road configuration. There have been very obvious tensions with the view from many businesses that the restrictions were having a negative impact on their trade balanced with the need for people to have sufficient space to feel safe. Finally, a compromise was reached which appears broadly acceptable. Although highways issues are, strictly speaking, a WCC responsibility, the fact that we got stuck in to help resolve the issue demonstrates our ‘can do' attitude to tackling challenges.
As you can see, we have been busy.
One thing we are finding that this crisis is doing is exposing those organisations and individuals responding positively to the challenges from those that are less proactive and responsive.
In the meantime, please keep safe and socially distanced and thank you for supporting your local shops and businesses.
The slow recovery from COVID-19 continues. Whilst it is clear that Stratford-upon-Avon is getting busier and more people are getting into the town, the data we have from our car park numbers indicate usage is between 40-50% of last year. Unsurprisingly weekends are busier than weekdays.
Furthermore, I have to report that the clear message I get from the business people who attend the CWLEP and WMCA Economic Recovery Group is that the recovery is slower than expected. This is particularly true of the hospitality, arts and culture sectors. Unsurprisingly this affects Stratford badly.
For us recovery is, I am afraid, going to be a long, slow haul.
We have yet to hear any news about our bid for the Riverside Corridor project. I understand that decisions will be made by the end of this month. I am told that there will be more rounds of funding available, which is good news should we not be successful in this round.
On a more positive note we have been advised that there is going to be a third round of Government funding available for local authorities. We should benefit considerably from this, although it will by no means offset all the negative impacts we have felt through being hit so hard by loss of income. The prospect of additional funding will also buy us a bit more time to put together plans to tackle the substantial budget shortfall. The relentless and intensive lobbying we have done over the last four months has paid off.
The support the Government has announced for the arts and culture will also help, although the devil as always will be in the detail.
I am working hard with a group consisting of Shakespeare's England, the CWLEP, the RSC and the Birthplace Trust to put together a reality case and ask of Government to support us through the next 18 months to two years and position our tourist industry to return to growth.
Outside of Stratford Town we are continuing to work with the University of Warwick on the development of the Wellesbourne Campus. There should be some good news to announce shortly.
In September, the Government have announced that they will be issuing a ‘white paper' that will identify options for increasing the powers for local government, as well as undertaking a review of the structure of local government. Ahead of this Stratford have already decided that it would like to work more closely with Warwick District Council on areas such as sharing a number of senior positions, jointly tendering for large contracts and working together on the next version of our Core Strategy. All of these initiatives are designed to provide benefits for our residents and businesses whilst at the same time reducing costs.
In addition, the Council is calling upon the County Council and all other district and borough councils within Warwickshire to commission a review to help determine the best structure of local government for the future. During this review we will be seeking the views of the public, the town and parish councils and our businesses. Further details on this review will be available shortly.
Whilst the number of COVID-19 cases have flattened across the district, the importance of social distancing and rigorous hand hygiene measures continue to be absolutely essential across all settings.
Life will continue to be very busy and, it looks as though it is going to be far from boring.
In my last column I said that I was not sure that many people had understood the implications of the biggest economic downturn in centuries. Despite the continual flow of grim economic news I am afraid that this is still the case. There appears to be great deal of denial around. Many people are still acting as though COVID-19 is merely a brief interruption and then things will continue much as before. I was at a meeting last week where businessmen were feeding back experience from the sharp end, it wasn't good, and I could see that the Chair of the meeting appeared ‘shell-shocked'.
Locally, Stratford-on-Avon District has 17,100 people on furlough, the highest number of any Warwickshire District or Borough. High levels of unemployment will be the big issue coming down the track fast.
In dealing with any crisis one of the first things to do is face reality, no matter how bad it looks. I think that the team we have at Stratford District Council have a realistic grasp of what is facing us. In part this is because some of us are old enough to have experienced the 1980's recession in the workplace with falling output and rising unemployment. What we are currently facing will be the 1980's writ large and in part because all the portfolio holders have substantial experience in the commercial world.
The last month has seen us all intensify our lobbying efforts about the state of the District's finances as a result of the loss of income. This has affected many councils across the country. A fortnight ago I was (virtually) at a conference organised by the Local Government Association attended by many of the councils most heavily impacted. Attendees included Bath, Brighton, Bournemouth, York and Liverpool; the common feature was tourism. Our officers have also been in discussions with the Department for Housing, Communities and Local Government spelling out our financial position in very direct terms.
As yet there appears to be no movement. This may be because we understand that the funding shortfall across local government is in the order of £10 billion. However, one message that does appear to have got across is that we are the 4th worst impacted council by the COVID-19 outbreak.
The state of our finances and that of the tourist industry are closely linked. The latest figures for 2018 show we had 6.7 million visitors with a total value of £461.4 million supporting over 8,500 jobs. The growth rate was 12.7% between 2017 and 2018. In other words it is a huge success story. The latest data from VisitBritain clearly shows that we can expect no rapid recovery. Only 30% of people surveyed expect ‘normality' by September, this rises to 53% expecting it by December. Outdoor areas and activities are set to be more popular than indoor activities and venues; hence the popularity of the ‘Rec'.
Obviously this hits our Shakespeare attractions hard, the RSC, Shakespeare's Birthplace Trust and Shakespeare's Schoolroom will all struggle financially and as a Council we will do everything we can to support their lobbying efforts for financial support. Just to be absolutely clear, all the data indicates that it will be at least 2022 before there will be a substantial recovery. One of our big concerns is that the tourist, hospitality and retail infrastructure degrades over the next two years, further inhibiting recovery. Remember there are 17,100 people furloughed and it is their livelihoods that are at stake. However, I am confident that the ‘Stratford-upon-Avon' and ‘Shakespeare' brands will play a crucial role in enabling our recovery.
Reopening Stratford town centre to provide a safer environment for shoppers, pedestrians and businesses to operate is all part of the recovery process and we have worked closely with Warwickshire County Council and the Town Council to put a new, but temporary road allocation scheme in place within extremely short timescales.
Improving the appearance of barriers is high on the agenda and we are hoping to tap into the creativity of local art groups to reflect the distinctive look and feel of our new look town. As hospitality businesses open, the space created may allow them to increase their outside tables to accommodate the social distancing requirements.
On a positive note, we have paid out £30.78m to 2,503 businesses on the Business Rate Grant scheme. We now have the princely sum of £1.7 million to distribute through a ‘discretionary' scheme, although given the constraints imposed on us, I wonder if the people at the centre truly understand the meaning of the word ‘discretionary'.
We have also had the opportunity to bid for capital schemes through the CWLEP, it is an illustration of the speed at which we have to work that we received notice of this opportunity late on Wednesday and the bids will need to be submitted by Monday. It is perhaps unsurprising that given the speed and intensity with which we have to work and the extent of lobbying and influencing we have to do that many of us are weary. This is both officers and portfolio holders. We are aware that the effort needs to be put in now to help secure our future.
Finally, another piece of good news, Julie Lewis has joined the team as Head of Community and Operational Services; she is a most welcome addition to the team and has joined us at a time when we really did need reinforcements.
In my last column I said that the world has changed. What we have yet to discover is exactly what the changes will be.
There are some things we know:
In short, we are facing the biggest economic downturn for centuries. I am not sure that most people have fully understood the implications of this yet. It seems to me that many people are assuming that we will recover from this fairly quickly and the world will then continue much the same as before.
Locally we now are getting much clearer on a number of things. The most significant of which is that the District Council finances have taken a huge hit. The total impact, up to now of COVID-19 is £8.15 million. We have received funding from government of £1.343 million leaving a shortfall of £6.8 million. Contrast this with the County Council who had a total impact of £29.4 million and have received £24.68 million. It would appear as though central government did not grasp the negative impact on revenue; in our case we estimate our lost income is £6.6 million. Strong representations have been made about this and there is hope of a third round of funding that may go some way to addressing this. Councils in tourist areas appear to be particularly affected.
What we are doing now is lobbying as hard as we can for more funding and developing scenarios projecting the impact over the next 5 years. In all honesty, we do not expect to have the full shortfall covered, so as the position becomes clearer we will have to decide how to react. It is inevitable that very difficult decisions will have to be made fairly swiftly. It would be fair to observe that none of our councillors expected this but times have changed and we have to adapt to them.
This leads neatly on to the next key issue, as a District tourism is our second biggest industry employing an estimated 7,000 people. It also underpins our retail industry and town centres, particularly in Stratford-upon-Avon itself. All the estimates are that hospitality and tourism will be the last industries to recover. Long haul tourism in particular. Furthermore, hospitality, tourism and retail will find it particularly challenging to cope with social distancing requirements as we emerge from lockdown. We can expect our local economy to take a heavy hit this year and probably next. We are spending considerable time and effort getting the message across that we will need substantial help to maintain our tourist infrastructure whilst demand recovers. Indications are that the message is being heard but the UK in general does not appear to appreciate the economic significance of tourism.
However successful we are, it would be unrealistic to expect our tourist industry, retail and town centres not to change significantly. We are in the process of putting together a group to explore what the impacts might be and what we may be able to do to help.
It was good to see Stratford coming back to life on Saturday; it restored a feeling of normalcy. However there is no doubt that many people will see these numbers of people as a threat. When the guidance was ‘stay home', decisions were easy. Now the guidance is more nuanced I suspect that no one will be content. I fear that one of the issues over the next few, or even many weeks will be the tensions increasing across society. There are no easy answers or solutions although I anticipate many people, who do not have to make the decisions, will think that there are.
We are facing unprecedented times and a huge measure of uncertainty. I think that we need to watch carefully how things unfold and be ready to react rapidly. We also have to be careful not to suffer the unintended consequences of hasty action.
I am writing this column whilst I am recovering from COVID-19. In my case I think I have escaped fairly lightly, just extreme tiredness verging on exhaustion. (Reading the finished article I realise the impact it has had).
Since my last column the world has changed. We have had a council meeting where only the minimum number of councillors needed to ensure a quorum were present (nine). At that meeting we, in effect delegated decision making to officers and the Leader. We were seated 2 metres apart which gave the meeting a surrealistic feel.
The way in which we operate has had to change out of all recognition. As an example, on 16 March there were 44 officers working from home, on 9 April there were 209. We have increased the number of desktop licences from 100 to 400, and accelerated the procurement of 100 laptops. All have now been delivered.
The way we work has changed dramatically, until last week every morning the Deputy Leader and I had a video conference with the CEO and Deputy. The Deputy Leader and I then had a video conference on the evening with the portfolio holders. We then set up a ‘buddy system' where we briefed all the other councillors between us. Video and teleconferencing has become very much the norm, I have these with; the District Councils network, the Department of Housing Communities and Local Government, the WMCA and one that includes WCC, all the Districts and Boroughs in the County and the local MP's. After a few early failures I have now got the hang of how to do these properly. I think we have all had to learn new skills very quickly.
The District Council has been stretched by the need to respond to the sheer scale of crisis. To pick out some of the salient areas of activity:
Overall the sheer scale of the activity required has put everyone in the Council under significant pressure. Groups worth particular mention are, the staff in the Contact Centre who have been dealing with a doubling in calls - it is not only the volume of calls that is stressful but also the nature of the calls where individuals and families are struggling to manage a sudden and dramatic change in their circumstances. We have had discussions about whether these people should work remotely or whether for support they are better working together as a team in Elizabeth House. Our staff are used to dealing with challenging customers but the complexity and the emotional nature of many of the calls can be seen by looking at the weariness and stress etched on people's faces at the end of each day. Our concern for our staff is balanced by the need for us to continue to provide the services that people are reliant on in these challenging times, is a major consideration.
The other group is IT, with the huge increase in the number of people working remotely and 100 new laptops to configure to our requirements they have enabled us to ‘keep the show on the road'. The concern with this team is that again we are reliant on a relatively small number of staff to maintain the level of work over what could be an extended period.
Given the sheer scale of the challenges and the need to respond rapidly it should be no surprise that some people and businesses will ‘fall through the cracks'. We do need to remember how much has been achieved and how many businesses and individuals have been helped. I am proud of the way in which everyone in the Council has responded.
I would like to take this opportunity to publicly thank them all.
There is only one subject to write about at the moment and that is the impact of COVID-19.
The impacts are severe at a number of levels:
The reality is that we are pretty much in uncharted territory. It is unprecedented in peacetime for countries to go into ‘lock down'. Normal flows of trade and travel have ceased and it is uncertain how long this will last.
As a Council we are now working out how we adapt and play our part to reduce the spread of the virus. Obviously we cannot cease operations. Our first key step is to put in place the capability for as many people to home work as possible and then maximise the number of people doing this. We recognise that not only do we have to stay open but we have to be seen to stay open. Our main reception and contact centre will remain manned and, on Monday we decided to keep the Visitor Information Centre open. After all, tourism is our second biggest industry. On Tuesday we decided that, given the massive reduction in the number of visitors, we would close it. This is an indication of how fast things are changing.
We then intend reducing to an absolute minimum the number of meetings that need to be held. One of the issues we have is that legally people have to be physically present at decision making meetings. We have been told that the law will be changed, this week, so that people will no longer have to be present. This is particularly important for Planning and Licensing meetings. We will be putting the technology in place so that these meetings can operate using remote technology. We have cancelled all council meetings until the end of March which gives us time to understand what we can and can't do.
We are taking actions and making decisions step by step. In part this is because we need decisions and guidance from government and in part because we are testing our thinking on options so we attempt to ‘get it right first time'.
In the short term the main issues will be around social care and people deemed to be vulnerable. Social care is the province of Warwickshire County Council. People thought to be vulnerable to COVID-19 are estimated at between 1.2 and 1.7 million. A lot of the support needed will be done by community groups, we will need to think through and consult on where and how we can add value.
What is a major concern is the longer term economic and business impacts, and some of these will manifest very quickly. We anticipate that hotels and the hospitality industry will begin to shed staff, probably starting this week. We also anticipate that retail will be even harder than it has been. In short we expect redundancies and short-time working to become more significant very quickly. In the slightly longer term we expect that many more businesses will be hit by either lack of demand or supply chain issues.
We believe that as the COVID-19 crisis continues then there will be an increasing number of people with council tax arrears and issues with their rent. This may mean an increase in workload and the implications will need to be considered.
We understand that we, as a council will be responsible for implementing the proposals on business rates and the hardship fund as announced in the budget. This will be another load on us at a challenging time. We are awaiting government guidance on how we have to implement these. We have still not had any formal guidance or instructions from last week's business rates budget announcements let alone something that was announced at 6pm on Tuesday 17 March.
Overall we are preparing as best we can for a journey into uncharted territory. We have focussed on the most urgent issues and have identified those that can be considered later yet, still before they really impact.
In the longer term we will need to be thinking through how we help the District recover and prepare for the ‘new normal' from mid-2021 onwards. I think we have to be clear that the ‘new normal' may be very different from the pre COVID-19 normal. We all will need to adapt.
Climate change is a hot topic at the moment. However, despite all the rhetoric there seems to be many things about it people fail to grasp. So this month's column does come with a ‘health warning' as the subject matter is complicated and technical.
I first began looking closely at climate change in 2007, and my initial thought was the impact of this was way off in the future; by the time we finished the work in 2009 I realised just how wrong I was. My current view is that the impacts will be much bigger and come much faster than most people realise.
There is no doubt that global warming is substantially enhanced by man-made emissions of greenhouse gases, not just carbon dioxide. In 1995 the Inter-governmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) concluded that the aim should be to restrict emissions to keep global temperature rise to 2°c. In the 25 years since then there has been a remorseless, and in some cases, an accelerating rise in the concentration of all greenhouse gases in the atmosphere.
On 5 December 2019 The Economist, widely regarded as a reputable source published a briefing on climate change. It said ‘Hitting 2°c can no longer be done by mitigation alone. It requires between 100bn and 1 trillion tonnes of CO2 removing from the atmosphere by the end of the century (Median is 730 billion tonnes).'
Furthermore, ‘In some IPCC scenarios planting a forest the size of Russia would only absorb 200 billion tonnes of CO2.'
And finally: ‘…….gains from negative emissions. It is a trick that comes perilously close to magical thinking.'
There is, I think, an emerging view that, on current trends, global warming will be 3°c and a realistic planning assumption would be 4°c. What is perhaps more disturbing is the frequent upward revisions in estimated sea level rise. IPCC now estimates 80+cms, again there appears to be an emerging view that sea level rise could top 1 metre by 2100, and some think it could hit 2 metres. Sea level rises will continue for centuries beyond 2100.
I appreciate that many environmentalists may find this challenging; however, global warming is a global issue and requires massive global scale solutions. Whilst the UK is doing relatively well on emissions reductions what will matter more is what, China, USA, India and Russia do. Consumption of fossil fuels, coal, oil and natural gas is still increasing.
So, what are we as a District Council doing? We have declared a climate emergency which aims to be carbon neutral by 2030. We have prepared a Supplementary Planning Document on climate change adaptation and mitigation which aims to ensure that new development whether commercial, housing, changes of use or householder extensions, incorporate measures to reduce carbon emissions and adapt to the effects of climate change. The draft guidance is currently out for consultation, this ends on 21 February and after taking on board comments received we aim to adopt the final version by the summer.
What we have yet to do is fully understand and then take action on what impact global warming will have on the district.
The most likely outcomes are:
Up to now focus has been largely on mitigation, whilst we will not take the eye off that ball, we need to put more effort into adaptation.
We are far from alone in this. The Committee on Climate Change reported to Parliament in 2019: ‘England is still not prepared for even a 2°C rise in global temperature, let alone more extreme levels of warming. Only a handful of sectors have plans that consider a minimum of 2°C global warming – water supply, road and rail, flood defences and flood risk planning for infrastructure."
We see our Core Strategy review, starting later this year as the perfect vehicle to get to grips with adaptation to a much different climate. The sooner we get started the better. We want houses designed and built now that can cope with higher temperatures; we want to prevent houses being built on what will be very much larger flood plains and we want to prevent houses being built where water supply may be an issue. The next Core Strategy will run through to 2045/50, by then I would expect the impact of global warming to be very noticeable.
By the time our next Core Strategy is published, our aim is to be seen as leaders in thinking and action on adaptation to the substantial impacts of global warming. We want to increase significantly the resilience of our district to cope with what is inevitably coming. I see this as responsible and strategic community leadership.
The green waste charge has generated a great deal of heat and comment. It is, however, merely the tangible manifestation of a number of much deeper issues.
One of the fundamental drivers of the pressures that the public sector as a whole is under is the inescapable fact that the economic performance of the UK since 2007 has been dreadful. If our economy had grown at pre 2008 rates, the economy would have been about £300 billion larger. Tax take would have been about £110 billion bigger, assuming the proportion of GDP collected as tax remained constant.
In other words, our lacklustre economic performance has constrained our capacity to spend on public services.
People who assume that ‘austerity' is to blame should be aware that the size of the state as a proportion of GDP has remained unchanged since 2007.
The distribution of spending on public service, however, has shifted considerably. The amount spent per person, other than on health and pensions has been reduced by 21%. Stratford District Council has been protected from this squeeze by the New Homes Bonus. Because a great many new homes have been built in the District, we have benefited from this far more than most councils.
Unfortunately, after the coming financial year (2020/21) this funding will be taken away from district councils and reallocated, most probably to Social Care provision which is a County Council responsibility. By 2023/24 this will leave a £5.3 million hole in our budget. What makes our situation more challenging is that, because of the intervention of the general election, we only have a one year settlement. Under normal circumstances we would now have had a settlement for four years so enabling us to plan with a degree of certainty.
Then we come to the constraints Central Government place on us regarding raising money. The Council is capped on the amount by which it can raise council tax, to 2% or, perhaps for 2020/21 to only £5. Increasing council tax by 2% raises about £163k in revenue compared to charging £40 for a green bin which raises £800k a year.
The rules we operate under are very clear that we cannot just add, the discretionary service of green waste charge to council tax.
A further constraint is that our Head of Finance specifies a minimum level of reserves we must hold. This is £2.5 million. If we drop below that in any year of the Medium Term Financial Plan (MTFP), then he will not ‘sign off' the budget – a legal requirement. With the proposed MTFP, including the charge for green waste, we are showing reserves of £3.1 million in four years' time (2024/25). If we do not charge for green waste, our income would be reduced by then by £4 million. We would then have to find alternative ways of increasing revenue by £4 million or of cutting costs by £4 million and ultimately reducing services.
Finally, in 2024/25 there will be a need to draw on reserves to the tune of £3.2 million. As reserves at this time would only be £3.1 million, it is obvious that we will need to find another £3 million or so through revenue raising or cost savings decisions. It is true, we do currently have a relatively high level of reserves, but these will need to be used to support spending over the next few years. You can only draw on reserves once. Once they are spent, they are spent.
The challenges for us in the medium term are far from over. This year's MTFP is merely the start of period of very difficult decisions, if we are to maintain current services. My view has always been it is responsible to take tough decisions as early as possible. This is what we are doing. It is far preferable to assuming that, like Mr Micawber, ‘something will turn up'.
Stepping back to look at the big picture, the challenges we face as a District Council are perhaps an extreme, version of the challenges faced across the public sector. Economic growth is insufficient to underpin increased spending, so, it's either pay more or get less. It really is that simple. Not only will councils have to make ever tougher decisions but residents will also have to think very clearly about their priorities and what they are willing to pay.
The days when being a councillor was about spending money and only giving good news are well and truly over. As councillors we all need to face up to our community leadership responsibilities and be prepared to explain to residents the realities we face.
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.
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.