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Leader’s statement – 11 October 2023

Cllr Bethia Thomas, Leader of Vale of White Horse District Council, delivered her Leader’s statement to Council at the meeting on Wednesday 11 October 2023.

Tonight I am here as leader of our council to report on progress in our district since we last met; I know that in my position it is easy to get caught  up in what cabinet and senior officers are doing, however I know we are all working as a council across all fronts, at every level, and this has made me think a lot about the types of influence we have to shape our district and  the effect we can have on our communities.

Obviously as a district council we do have the power to affect change in our area directly. However, in some circumstances we often work in partnership with other organisations and councils, and in some instances, regretfully, we have very little control over certain programmes of work, with decisions on major projects in our area, taken out of local hands.

An example of this is of course SESRO – the South East Strategic Reservoir Option – if this was to go ahead, pushed through by Thames Water as national infrastructure project, it will cut a scar into our countryside and is something that this council has consistently objected to for decades. We have heard the opposition to this scheme, and will continue to resist it, as evidenced in a recent statement to Thames Water in which I spoke against it. We are listening to our residents and will fight this just as we oppose the illegal dumping of sewage into our rivers and waterways – it is just not acceptable.

Sometimes it is difficult not to feel powerless as we have to adapt to decisions imposed on us by others – National Highways’ decision to begin works on the Botley Interchange caused traffic chaos, further impacting the transport links from the Western Vale that have already been affected by the continued closure of the Botley Road by Network Rail. Only today our officers in economic development met to discuss the impact this closure has on the businesses in Vale surrounding the city, and I welcome this intervention.

I am sure you are also all aware of the HIF1 Scheme. Since the last meeting the decision on the HIF1 Scheme has been called in by the Secretary of State. Whether you are for or against the scheme, this infrastructure project is vital for much of the development set down in our current local plan, and now we will have to wait until the end of February next year to begin the inspection process which will determine the future of this infrastructure scheme in Southern Oxfordshire

As you know, we work together with councils and other organisations all the time. The future of some of the major partnerships in which we play a part are currently under review, and I hope that now we will have the chance to ensure that we are getting the best value for money and high quality services for our district through these partnerships. At the Future Oxfordshire Partnership’s Workshop several weeks ago we all had a chance to express our views on its future and I believe many agreed that this may be an opportunity for change.

Of course, partnership working happens at all levels and one of our closest links is with our colleagues in South Oxfordshire, most notably working together on the Joint Local Plan to develop an exemplary vision that will be something we can all be proud of – a plan that reflects our vision to provide residents with affordable, high quality homes, making sure we take into account the natural environment, businesses, infrastructure and creating happy and healthy communities – this is a vision for the future and something that we are determined to make happen.

At the same time, we are working on a vision that will set down our pattern of work, our objectives and aspirations for the course of this administration, as we begin the process of our new corporate plan, with many of the priorities that are already in train. This will be a plan that builds on the work that we have started already, and projects that we need to achieve to ensure we reach the goals we have set ourselves, providing the homes people need, prioritising the climate and the environment, and building healthy communities.

We are committed to the principles and visions set down in our current corporate plan and have examples to show that. By building and maintaining a stable financial position we have managed to avoid the financial black hole that was looming when we took the council four years ago – but we are not complacent, and we are constantly working on strategies to combat the cut in local government funding that has caused the downfall of councils across the county.

We are also not complacent about providing the kind of safe, sustainable communities we want to live in and we are making sure the policies we put in place to encourage developers to build the affordable homes we want to see here in the Vale are robust and accessible; we have secured housing stock to rehome Afghan families who assisted our armed forces and, because of this, were forced to flee their homes and I am sure we welcome them to the district; we are enhancing our offer to the community in other ways and beginning the programmes of work to reduce the carbon output of our leisure centres in Wantage and Abingdon; and are looking for opportunities to provide improved services across the district.

As our corporate plan states we work in an open and transparent way, so that means when we do make a mistake, we learn from it, and come back stronger than ever. We admit that earlier this year timings on our planning decision had slipped due to covid. We had recognised this and had the foresight to call for a programme of transformation that would improve the planning service and now, several months on we are reaping the benefits of this work, seeing improvements across the board, which we will continue to assess – in this case, the secretary of state is happy with our progress and has written to reaffirm the sovereignty of the council as the local planning authority.

We are a very active council, constantly striving to reach out to the community. All of us as ward members play a part in shaping our parishes, as campaigners we fight for those principles we believe in, and as champions we work to highlight some of the most important issues across the Vale.

All the time we see schemes that we have put in place having a positive impact on our communities. Today I was given the exciting news that we have awarded over £50,000 of funding across the district that will make a direct impact on our climate targets, the environment, encourage nature recovery and enhance our wild spaces – an example where our beliefs, principles, and vision have been put into action for the benefit of our residents.

So, I want to finish by thanking you all.  We can see that as a council we work across all levels. While some circumstances may be imposed on us and we have to remain alert to these, we have the ability to set our own programme of work by focussing on those principals we believe in, in our Corporate Plan, and in partnership with South Oxfordshire, through the Joint Local Plan, we are laying down the vision for the future that we want to see here in the Vale. 

We have the confidence in ourselves and in our officers to ensure that our vision is transformed into reality; we have seen this already. So, I want to thank you again for your energy, for your scrutiny, for enthusiasm, and for ideas.

We are in this together.