Leader's Blog 2020
Leader of Vale of White Horse District Council, Cllr Emily Smith writes:
As Pride month draws to a close we look back to last year when Vale members celebrated diversity and humanity at the first ever Abingdon Pride. It was such a positive community event and we look forward to taking part in Pride events next year.
The Post-Covid Renewal
Before Covid-19, Vale councillors had nearly finished our new Corporate Plan, setting out the council’s priorities for the coming four years. After nine weeks of lockdown the world is looking quite different and the work of the council has been transformed.
The government has tasked the Oxfordshire Local Enterprise Partnership with producing an economic ‘Recovery Plan’ for the county. With high unemployment predicted it is essential that our local businesses get all the support they need, but we should not stop at the local economy; we have a once in a generation opportunity to do all sorts of things better.
While this has been a challenging time for many, especially those who have been ill or lost loved ones, it has been fascinating to see lockdown has highlighted what is important. We have all made adjustments, and many of them positive for community, public health, and the planet.
We have been spending more time with family, working from home, cycling and walking more, buying local produce, breathing cleaner air, having more contact with wildlife, buying fewer clothes and toys, supporting our neighbours, housing our rough sleepers, fixing and reusing things, using technology to connect more with others… I do not want to lose these positives, and I believe there is public appetite for a fresh approach – where health and well-being are valued more that GDP.
So, Vale councillors are working on our own ‘Recovery Plan’. A plan in lieu of a Corporate Plan during this post-Covid period as we establish what the new normal is. A plan with our core values of community engagement, climate action and supporting the most vulnerable at its heart. A plan setting out how the council will do things differently.
I am not keen on the term ‘Recovery Plan’ as it implies going back to how things were before. Even if we were able to return to business as usual, I do not think we should.
Daily exercise during lockdown
With the lock down continuing I have started a thread of pictures on twitter of where people are taking their daily exercise all around the Vale. Please do add to it.
International Women’s Day: Some positive reflections, some work still to do…
Some of Vale's female councillors
International Women’s Day is a chance to reflect and remind ourselves to keep working for gender equality.
Across the UK the gender pay gap among full-time employees stands at 8.9% and has only improved by 0.6% since 2012. The number of women elected as councillors in England is still only 35%.
So, I am proud to lead a council which is bucking the trend: Vale of White Horse District Council does not have a gender pay gap at all! (see the data at http://www.whitehorsedc.gov.uk/about-us/jobs-and-careers/working-us)
It is also fantastic that Vale residents have elected 38 councillors who are 47% women AND 78% of our cabinet are women.
This is important because a councillor’s job is literally representing our residents. We make better decisions when we understand all their implications and consider the views of every section of our community.
Since getting involved in politics, I have been surrounded by brilliant women politicians who have shown me how to get involved and encouraged me to stand for election. But now as council leader I have more contact with other councils and national government where gender (and other forms of) inequality is more clearly apparent.
While it is depressing to be in so many regional meetings where men dominate, it does spur me on to speak up and volunteer for additional responsibilities: If I can use my position to show others that women in political leadership roles is ‘normal’ I hope the women around me feel more confident about getting involved themselves. I see encouraging individuals, of all under-represented groups but especially women, is part of my job.
For ayone thinking of being a local councillor do check out the information and advice at beacouncillor.co.uk
Climate Action in Botley
Our Climate Emergency Advisory Committee Chair, Cllr David Grant, and I had a brilliant time at the Big Botley Green day this weekend.
The aim was to share information about the grassroots community action to improve our environment, get members of the public involved and build connections.
A series of short talks included one from David and I about the Vale’s work so far to address the climate emergency and a panel session to generate ideas for local community action.
It was great to have members of the Vale’s environmental enforcement and waste and recycling teams there to speak to residents about all things waste and recycling. They had a stall alongside Cyclox, Oxford Food bank, Cosy Homes, Extinction Rebellion, Oxford Badger Group, OxAir and so many more.
Other attractions included a plant swap, bring and take, Morris dancing, air quality monitoring, vegetarian food available, mass litter picking session, face painting, cake…all sorts happening over two halls in West Way.
It really was an inspiring day; so much will to act. So much already happening in Botley and beyond. And so much more we can do locally to improve our environment and tackle the climate emergency.
Thanks to North Hinksey Parish Council and the Associate of Botley Communities for getting this event of the ground – David and I are already looking forward to the next one.
At a recent Growth Board meeting I heard a presentation from Network Rail, the County Council and the Department for Transport on the Oxfordshire Rail Corridor Strategy. This set out priorities for rail investment over the coming years to support housing and employment growth across the county.
I’m really pleased to see that that this includes plans for the new Grove station but concerned that this isn’t planned to happen until 2024, given that one of the most common complaints I and my fellow councillors receive is about transport infrastructure not keeping pace with house building.
I firmly believe that a new station will help traffic congestion around Didcot as people commuting by train often drive to Didcot and park there. A new station will also improve air quality and contribute to our desperate need to tackle the climate emergency, a subject I care deeply about.
Given the potential for additional housing and developer contributions from housing already coming in Grove, which could contribute to the £20 million bill, I would really like to see this happen sooner. I am very keen to work with local and national partners, including local businesses, to identify funding and bring the Grove station forward as soon as possible.
The new year is a great opportunity to make plans for the future – and this is the year I really hope we can take some meaningful actions in tackling the significant challenges presented by climate change
I’m really pleased that the Vale declared a Climate Emergency in 2019, and even more so that we then went on to set up the Climate Emergency Advisory Committee. In December we agreed new Carbon reduction targets; for the Council itself to become carbon neutral by 2030 and for the district as a whole to be carbon neutral by 2045.
Last year, many young people from the Vale took part in campaigns like the Youth Climate Strikes in Oxfords. Thanks to them and millions of others, the climate crisis really rose up the political agenda.
The increased awareness of our impact on the climate was evident to me over the Christmas period. I, and so many people around me, were talking about buying fewer gifts, using wrapping paper that can be recycled, and reducing the amount of meat consumed.
Then came the talk of New Year’s resolutions… my resolutions rarely last until the end of January, but when it comes to the climate, we cannot let that happen.
National planning policy currently prevents us from insisting on carbon neutral buildings and other standards we would like to have in our local plan and Neighbourhood plans. We need the government to allow us the freedom to insist on ‘greener’ building standards. To that end, we have responded to the government’s ‘Future Homes’ consultation making the case for tougher building regulations and for local councils to have more powers to insist on higher environmental standards than national legislation allows.
We ‘the council’ can take action to make our buildings more energy efficient, we can review our planning policies and we can take account of the environmental impact of all the decisions we take. But we cannot reach our goal to be a carbon neutral district alone.
There is a huge amount of will across our communities and amongst elected councillors to tackle the climate. The next step for the Vale is to work out how to have the greatest impact and communicate about initiatives that everyone living and working in the Vale can help with.
2019 was the year of awareness raising, 2020 needs to be the year we all take action.
Last reviewed: 29 - 06 - 2020