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Leader’s statement – 12 October 2022

Cllr Emily Smith, Leader of Vale of White Horse District Council, delivered her Leader’s statement to Council at the meeting on 12 October 2022.

Cost of Living Crisis 

At the forefront of my mind at the moment is the worsening Cost of Living Crisis and how we as a council can best support local people and businesses from huge energy bills, rising prices and runaway inflation.  

Along with Cllr Bethia Thomas and Cllr Helen Pighills I attended a Round Table event last week, hosted by the County Council to bring voluntary sector and public sector partners together to discuss the challenges we all face, and the actions already being taken to support our communities.  

In the short term, we are taking action: providing information though our Community Hub; funding Citizens Advice and Vale Community Impact to provide advice services; promoting discounted and free leisure activities to support wellbeing; and working with local businesses through our Business Support Service.

Yet again, our Housing Needs team, using a person centred, proactive approach has been shown to far outperform other councils in Oxfordshire and the country in terms of preventing homelessness.  

However, as pressure on housing and other vital public services increases the more pressure our teams are under.  

The long-term solution to this crisis, needs to come from central government.  

Energy costs, inflation and ever reducing funding for local councils to help people facing homelessness and debt point to a bleak future for many in our communities. Government must do more to tackle the economic problems directly and start to see handing more powers and resource to councils, as being a vital part of the long-term solution.   

Praise from External Auditor 

Despite significant pressure on our budgets, we are making progress and continue to receive positive feedback from our auditors.  

As recently as 2019 we identified that this council was facing a bleak financial future. On the trajectory it was on at the time, the council would have run out of money in 2023. We immediately set about tackling this issue. It was fantastic this year to be able to set a budget that balanced over the 5 year medium term financial plan, and our external auditors are also impressed.  

In their recent audit report, they say: “there has been marked improvement since the prior MTFP. This improvement has been underpinned by material savings which have been identified – providing assurance that officers and members have progressed the arrangements to ensure financial sustainability in the medium term”. 

Work has begun on budget setting for 2023/24. The Government seems to have kicked the Fair Funding Review into the long grass for the seventh year in a row. The national economic picture is at best incredibly uncertain. I am therefore very grateful to Cllr Crawford, the finance team and officers across the Council for getting us in the strongest possible position to weather this storm.  

Partnership Working on Planning 

Despite talk of yet more planning reform at national level, we are making good progress on our new Joint Local Plan with South Oxfordshire District Council.  

Thank you to Cllr Hallett for leading this work to ensure that our future planning policies help us deliver our corporate plan objectives and stay true to the Oxfordshire Strategic Vision, which the County, Districts and City Council have all adopted.  

My thanks also to members who are engaging with the Joint Local Plan round table sessions to input your ideas about policy priorities. We had a really interesting session this week on policies to support the local economy. 

As well as working with South Oxfordshire, following the end of work on Oxfordshire Plan 2050 the Future Oxfordshire Partnership has agreed to continue with a planning focused ‘Advisory Group’ involving planning leads from across the county to share policy ideas, discuss spatial planning in the wider context of the county and provide political input in to cross boundary issues. A refreshed Terms of Reference is currently being drafted.  

Official Correspondence  

I wanted to remind everyone that that there is a page on our website with all the letters sent from and received by the leader on behalf of the council (including those that arise from council motions). 

In recent days, correspondence has included:  

  • A letter to the County Council setting out the Vale s opposition to Investment Zones in Oxfordshire. 
  • A letter to Thames Water CEO about the huge disruption to water supply and traffic congestion caused by large leaks in and round the Vale and the A34. 
  • An exchange with Sovereign Housing about the energy efficiency of their properties and residents’ concerns about energy costs. 

You can read these and other correspondence on the Vale’s webpage at any time  

New Round of Climate Action Fund  

And finally, I wanted to let everyone know that the next round of Climate Action Fund grants for communities, groups and parish councils will be available later this month  

The first round was incredibly successful with £50k being put to good use across the district on projects that included encouraging food and lifestyle changes, biodiversity improvements, energy saving and education.  

I look forward to seeing what local projects arise from this round of funding – which should support local activities to tackle both the climate emergency and the cost-of-living crisis.