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Leader’s statement – 13 July 2022

Cllr Emily Smith, Leader of Vale of White Horse District Council, delivered her Leader’s statement to Council at the meeting on 13 July 2022.

I was really pleased to represent our council at the Local Government Association conference in June. It was a fantastic opportunity to promote the incredible work our officers and members do and discuss challenges affecting the local councils across the country.  

There were several interesting presentations and debates about the need for meaningful devolution of funding and powers to local councils. Not only are councils like ours best placed to understand the needs of local people and places but releasing power from the centre to local authorities would achieve far better value for money and ensure that our communities needs were met in the ways that are important to them, so I believe this is an approach we should continue to argue for.  

Planning Reforms, Levelling Up and UK Shared Prosperity Fund Uncertainty 

England’s overly centralised system and the problems this can cause local councils and communities have been emphasised by the chaos currently playing out at the top of the Conservative party. In the space of a week we have seen the Minister for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities sacked, a temporary minister appointed and suggestions from the Prime Minister that no decisions will be made for the next three months. The uncertainty this has created is unhelpful.  

With a cost-of-living crisis to manage, Levelling Up and UK Shared Prosperity funding applications being made and no information about whether planning reforms will take place, councils are again supporting local people and businesses through difficult times, in a vacuum of information and certainty.  

But focusing on our communities and local environment is, of course, what this council does and will continue to do.  

At the last meeting of cabinet, we approved a new delivery plan for the Didcot Garden Town project, adopted our new Design Guide for planning across our district and South Oxfordshire, and reviewed the quarterly and annual performance of the council against our corporate plan aims – which is very positive and highlights the huge amount of progress being made across all services areas.   

Food and Farming Champion  

At our last full council meeting we passed a motion in support of sustainable farming and distribution, reducing food waste, and promote healthy eating for the benefit of our residents and the environment. This motion included the creation of a Food and Farming Champion, and I am pleased to announce that Cllr Paul Barrow has agreed to take on this role. He will be engaging with farms and other organisations around the district over the coming months promoting innovation and reporting as required back to the council. I find this a timely appointment with the increasing cost of food production and the cost of living crisis making this of great importance to our residents.

Climate Action Fund 

Our first round of Climate Action Fund grants to enable community groups and parish councils to take meaningful local climate and biodiversity action proved extremely popular. Applicants for a share of the £50,000 have been informed whether their bids were successful or not, and more information will be shared about the fantastic projects that we have been able to support. 

Oxfordshire Plan 2050 

Discussions about the Oxfordshire Plan 2050 continue. There is a pressing need to reach a political consensus across Oxfordshire’s city and district councils on the approach and method used to calculate the Oxfordshire housing need figure. To this aim, I am participating in several workshops over the coming weeks with other council leaders and planning policy leads (including Cllr Debby Hallett). 

Government has extended the deadline by which we need to submit the Oxfordshire Plan 2050 and a revised working timetable has been agreed by planning officers but, at this time, this is not fully funded.  Additionally, this timetable remains incredibly tight, and any slippage could impact the development of the Joint Vale and South Oxfordshire Local Plan – which would clearly not be acceptable.  

The Oxfordshire Strategic vision that all councils in Oxfordshire endorsed, puts climate and the environment front and centre. I believe that the Oxfordshire Plan 2050 could help our county achieve that shared vision and therefore Cllr Hallett and I will seek to ensure this vision is very much ‘front and centre’ within the Oxfordshire Plan 2050.

The Ox-Cam Arc 

In relation to spatial planning, it is understood (although not formally announced by the Prime Minister) that there will not be an Arc Spatial Framework to guide development across the region between Oxford and Cambridge. Civil servants working on the Arc were moved to new projects some time ago and there is a debate amongst council, LEP and University leaders across the region about whether to continue working on the Arc project.  

I did write to all members of this council setting out my position on whether the Vale should continue to be part of the Arc Leader’s Group, but wanted to summarise that position here for the public record.  

When the Arc was a government-led project I decided to participate in the Arc Leaders Group as it was seen as a route to direct contact with ministers and civil servants, a way to influence planning policy in the region and the route to accessing much needed infrastructure funding for our area.   

Those promised benefits are no longer on the table so we need to reassess our position.  

A proposal for a governance structure and potential outputs in return for some government funding to coordinate this activity has been drafted by members of the Arc Leaders Group, but at a meeting to discuss whether to submit this proposal to government there were mixed views. I was not convinced that the proposal suggested represented value for money, nor that all the partners (council leaders, Local Enterprise Partnerships and Universities) all share the same goals in relation to growth and the environment. 

Following consultation with Vale members and officers my position was that we should not continue to work on the Arc project, and instead should seek to work through existing partnerships within Oxfordshire, the south-east and England Economic Heartland (where responsibility for East-West Rail sits).  

However, a majority of those present at the meeting wanted to ask government to continue to support the Arc Leaders Group in some shape or form, so the outcome was that a further letter be sent to the minister and wait for their response. Which of course may now take some time to arrive.