Agenda item

Statement by the Leader of Council


The Leader of Council made the following statement:


Tonight, is the last formal Council meeting of this Municipal Year, which is an opportunity to reflect on the last two years.


Of course, the pandemic has taken central stage. It was the anniversary of the beginning of the first lockdown two days ago. Our lives have changed, unrecognisably for some, and many lives have been so sadly lost. I can only restate my condolences for those who have suffered so much.


I am humbled by the support that we have received from the charity, voluntary sector and our many volunteers. I particularly want to thank them all. There has been a tremendous partnership work across the board.


Our GPs continue to be magnificent and a big thank yet again to all the carers, doctors, health staff, social care staff, health, police, fire, rescue, ambulance, teachers, school staff, charities, volunteers and our staff.  In short everybody who has stepped up to the plate and made it possible for life to continue during these appalling times.


The weekly rate in Wokingham today is 40.9, which is well below the peak of 606 on the 4th January but still compares very badly to the below five in August. We suspect that we will hover around this figure for some time. Happily, both hospitalisations and deaths have declined substantially.  Deaths within the UK for those who have been diagnosed with Covid within 28 days have risen above 126,000.


Please encourage everyone, your family, friends and colleagues to observe the rules. It is a crucial time with the third wave beckoning across the Channel.


Please join me again in a moment’s silence for those who have died during this dreadful pandemic in Wokingham, the UK, and around the world, and those who have suffered not just the effect of the virus, but the problems which have accompanied it.


Please also remember in your thoughts the very sad and recent death of Jude Whyte; a very popular member of staff. She was a person who brought a ray of sunshine to everybody she met; I never heard her say a bad word about anybody, despite her handling some of the most difficult portfolios. She had been battling cancer in her inimitable and positive way for the last two years.


Thank you.


As I said tonight is the last formal meeting of the Municipal Year. Some of the election literature I have seen foretells that it will be my last in this seat, but there are also other fanciful claims.


Whilst Covid has been centre stage for the last two years, the Council has been addressing all of its responsibilities. Tonight’s papers reflect the span of issues that the Council addresses.


But before I address policy issues, I would like to commend the Officers and Members of the Council who are fundamental to our achievement and our role. My objective was to encourage Officers and Members to be bold, take initiatives and innovate. To do that they have to be motivated, proud to work for the Borough, and confident and happy in what they do. Most importantly happy! They need to feel that whoever they work for will praise what they have achieved and recognise that in doing so they will make mistakes and in turn give that joy and support to those who report to them. There will be mistakes. No worries!  We need to own them, correct them, and learn from our mistakes.


I have been very proud to lead you and you have done me proud and what has been achieved during the last two years is more than I could have wished for. It is a credit to the Officers and Members alike.


It is a huge acclaim to the amazing, decisive and inspirational leadership you have had, and they have had from Susan, your Chief Executive, supported by your Directors.  It is also a credit to my Executive Members, committee chairmen and other members of my administration. Thank you to you all.


It is no accident that we are the healthiest place to live and one of the most desirable. It is a tribute to your Council, its Officers, and the administration. This has been achieved over many years hard work.


Our finances are enviably strong, and our medium plan funded and ambitious. CIPFA and Ernst and Young are both complementary of our financial management. It is this fact which allows us to be imaginative and bold in our future. We are not anticipating any service reductions as other Councils have done and are doing. We have seen few defaults in our income or council tax.  Our Covid levels are comparatively low and our high streets relatively vibrant.


When we return in mid-May, we should be a few steps from the release of lockdown, and it will be necessary to work out where we go from here.


This administration worked very hard to restore the democratic processes after lockdown started and by and large we did. Some of it was halting and despite caveat lector’s constant criticism we expanded transparency generally, the involvement of other groups particularly the Leaders and their deputies and the remit of Overview and Scrutiny particularly with regard to the budgeting process. Sometimes technology has failed us and sometimes the protocols which we have needed to adopt have been inadequate. But with all the comparators we restored meetings sooner and more comprehensively than other councils.


It is clear therefore that we shall return quite soon to some form of face-to-face meetings but also it is clear that there is no date in the future when everybody will be back in the office; if only for the fact that with any form of social distancing we shall not have the space. So, we shall need to inch our way to hybrid meetings, continuing with virtual meetings where appropriate and starting face-to-face where appropriate.


You may have heard me say that we, the Borough Council, are the golden thread which runs through the Borough, the indispensable partner. Our only purpose is to serve our residents as best we can. In that service, there are no real limits except the ones we set ourselves. We are here to do some great things, some spectacular things.


But we must focus on our Borough. I shy from global and national movements, which may in part represent us but also lead us down blind alleys. I shy from philosophical, political, or moral arguments.


We are not here to represent central Government but our residents. We have been very much on a limb on certain issues. I successfully led the opposition to the housing numbers White Paper last year, not only in the Borough but also in England. I took the decision to not accept transfers into care homes which were not Covid free against Government policy and we were at the limit of our discretion in helping businesses with grants. I am as yet not in the Tower but then who knows?


Simply if we can continuously improve the lot of our residents then we have achieved what we are here to do. And what does this mean:  safe, secure, happy, and healthy. Everybody should be able to lead the life they chose without fear if they do no harm to others. We must encourage that uniqueness and support it. We should celebrate diversity, be anti-racist and do all we can to promote equality. We need to identify where there is a need and deprivation, and resolve the root causes if we can.


Our goal is an excellent and continuously improving wrap around service for our residents.  We must leave the planet in a better shape than we found it and a place where our children can thrive.


However, any organisational strategy must be holistic, understanding how one objective impacts on others and within a financial framework which is affordable, and stress tested. The Medium Term Financial Plan is the enumeration of this strategy. This administration has the depth of experience and professionalism to ensure that this is the case. 


Our plan set out in the Corporate Vision and at the front of the agenda but including Covid. There has been no other plan put forward by any other Group.


So Covid.  We must:


·       ensure the rapid rollout of the vaccination;

·       provide lateral flow testing so life can return to normal;

·       aid in every way in business recovery and job creation;

·       create a safe but normal environment for the future;

·       establish the shape of the new normality for our staff; and

·       help our high streets return to normality.


We must enrich the lives or our residents:


·       by getting every school in the Borough and Children’s Services to a minimum of “Good” Ofsted and provide sufficient school places;

·       build three new primary schools;

·       create an environment and economy that encourages new businesses and helps small and medium sized businesses thrive;

·       encourage active lifestyles with easily accessible leisure facilities and open spaces as well as art and culture across our Borough;

·       promote Equality, celebrate diversity and be anti-racist; and

·       identify the areas of need and tackle the causes of deprivation.


We must build safe and strong communities:


·       continuously improve our care services with greater focus on individual need over statutory requirement;

·       strategically invest in the future of all our communities, building opportunities to live, learn, work and grow across our Borough; and

·       protect our communities, invest to keep our streets secure, maintain our low crime rates and reduce our anti-social behaviour.


We must change the way we work:


·       deliver value for money and become less dependent on taxes for income, allowing us to fund improved services without additional cost to you our residents;

·       making our services easier for all residents, regardless of ability or capability; and

·       improve our communications and transparency so you know what we are spending your council tax on, and more importantly, why.


We must make a cleaner and greener Borough:


·       dramatically reduce our carbon footprint to neutrality by 2030;

·       increase our recycling rate to 70% and send zero waste to landfill;

·       fight the causes and prosecute the perpetrators of fly-tipping;

·       build solar farms to generate our own clean energy;

·       invest in greenways, cycle paths and leisure centres; and

·       plant 300,000 new trees across our Borough.


We must build the right homes in the right places:


·       protect our green spaces and our natural environment;

·       fight unnecessary speculative house building by all means;

·       build one thousand new council, starter and key worker homes over the next four years, affordable in name and cost;

·       build the infrastructure our communities deserve; and

·       challenge our Government-imposed housing target by all means available.


We must keep our Borough moving:


·       invest in the quality of our roads, pavements, paths and greenways;

·       tackle traffic around our schools and combat congestion to ease journeys across the Borough;

·       invest in sustainable alternative transport options for moving us across the Borough; and

·       target areas of poor air quality.


We can only achieve these objectives as we have been diligent and astute financial management which has achieved balanced budgets for each of the last nineteen years.  We come out of the pandemic with strong finances, which other authorities are envious of. We are anticipating no service cuts indeed service enhancements.  Our balance sheet is strong with a very low and prudent level of current and future borrowings covered many times by saleable assets. 


This administration has delivered in the past, been solid in the pandemic and has a great plan for the future.


During this evening’s Executive it reflects all the work that we have done in the last two years where there has been an immense amount of activity with an unprecedented number of policy papers covering every aspect of our Council, but it is the tip of the iceberg as we are ambitious to step up the pace to achieve service excellence for our residents.


I am delighted to present tonight’s agenda, which illustrates the enormous span of work going on in the Council; pretty typical of the last two years.


·       The Community Vision and Corporate Plan Review, much of which I have already covered. It is however necessary in any organisation to have deliverables which are articulated and known to the organisation. This is a very detailed plan which is being rolled out organisationally with performance targets for each and every member of staff.  KPIs have been developed and are being honed.


·       The Housing Strategy 2020-24 which is designed to address and understand our housing needs, support our vulnerable residents through a range of housing options, improve the quality, sustainability and management of the Borough’s homes and to enrich other people’s lives. It is a key parameter of our poverty strategy but also a driver of the Local Plan Update expected later in this year.


·       The Draft Leisure Strategy.  The Borough’s current Leisure Strategy focused on sports provision and in particular the Council’s own leisure services. This new draft strategy broadens its scope to incorporate the many opportunities provided by the extensive and growing network of high quality open spaces. Embracing country parks, new ‘greenways’ linking our strategic development locations, children’s play and encouraging active travel. It is a key contributor of being the healthiest place to live.  That accolade did not come by accident.


·       Arts and Culture Strategy.  I am delighted to see this coming forward and thank you to Charlotte.  I made a promise to Robin Copse.  In the context of a growing population and the Borough’s reputation as an excellent place to live with a high quality of life, the quality of the cultural offer will play a significant role in enhancing the Borough’s reputation and enriching the lives of residents. Building from a strong base of events and activities the Strategy seeks to further develop the cultural offer and extend the many associated social and economic benefits.


·       Delivering the Housing 1-4-5 +100 strategy. The Housing 1-4-5 Challenge aims to deliver 1,000 additional homes, led by the Council, over a 4-year period and providing an average of 5% return to the Council. The recent ‘+100’ addition reflects an additional challenge identified as part of the current work around developing a robust new Local Plan. The Council is looking to lead on the development of an additional approximately 100 new homes a year, predominantly on brownfield sites.


·       The pandemic is predicted to have a significant and long-lasting negative impact on the economy. These impacts will include increased unemployment and a challenging job market. Wokingham Borough does not have any DWP Job Centre Plus presence with residents having to travel to Reading or Bracknell to access support. This paper approves in principle the establishment of our employment hub.


·       Home to school transport policy provides Members with an overview of the key outcomes from the public consultation and seeks agreement to amend the current Home to School Transport Appeals Process to ensure it is compliant with the national regulations.


·       Wokingham School Arrangements. Wokingham Borough Council has statutory responsibilities for admissions to mainstream publicly funded schools (Academies, Free Schools and Maintained Schools) in the Wokingham Borough area. The Council is the admissions authority for Community and Voluntary Controlled Schools in its area. Academies, Free Schools and Voluntary Aided Schools are the admissions authorities in their own right. Admissions authorities set the admissions arrangements (including the oversubscription criteria) and are responsible for managing appeals and mid-year applications.  We will revisit this in the new year.


·       Covid Winter Grant Scheme Supplementary Estimate. This report seeks a Supplementary Estimate of up to £100,000 to continue to support vulnerable families and individuals who are struggling to meet the costs of food and utilities over the Winter months due to the Covid pandemic, supplementing the funds provided through the DWP Winter Grant. The DWP Grant allocated to Wokingham is £281k. The supplementary estimate, if fully spent, will bring total spend on supporting families and individuals over the Winter months to £381k.


This is the Council and this administration looking to the future to protect and defend our residents, whilst enhancing the quality of life.


Lastly, I would like to thank my very hard-working Executive particularly John, my indispensable and reliable deputy.  I could not wish for better.  Thank you all for your support in what have been very challenging times.


In particular Charlotte, who will certainly not be here in May. I thank you Charlotte for all your work over many years in Children’s Services, as the Leader and latterly in Regeneration and the Arts and Culture Strategy. It is a great compliment to you that Wokingham town centre is as vibrant and resilient as it is.


This is a great Borough, the healthiest and one of the most desirable, we wish to make it even greater. We did not get here by accident.


Remember - The administration has delivered in the past, been solid in the pandemic and has a great plan for the future.


Why would you risk it?