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Leader’s statement – 15 February 2023

Cllr Bethia Thomas, Leader of Vale of White Horse District Council, delivered her Leader’s statement to Council at the meeting on 15 February 2023.

It wasn’t that long ago that I spoke to this council taking on the role as leader, thanking Cllr Smith for her hard work and dedication to the Vale and its residents. A few months on and I can understand a little more of what she had achieved during her time as leader, and truly appreciate the amount of work that she has put in over the years. I thank you again, Emily, for your considerable efforts.

Having taken on the leadership so late in the administration and in the run up to the election, I am happy to have served in this role over the last few months. I have met with other leaders in a range of settings, have represented us at the Future Oxfordshire Partnership, attended the Oxfordshire Leaders Meeting as well as the Oxfordshire Systems Leaders Group, and was delighted to be present when the Oxfordshire Inclusive Economy Partnership launched its charter last month. It is initiatives like this that the council are signing up to because they reflect our principles of inclusivity, sustainability and diversity.

I am grateful for the experience and hope I have been serving you well, but it seems trite to focus on my last few months when really what we should be focussing on is the last few years and look back on our achievements as an administration, in what has been a uniquely challenging period, with pressures no-one could have ever predicted shaping our time in office. I want to show our appreciation for members and officers for all their efforts since 2019, so this will not be a regular leader’s report – and please forgive me if I slip into the vernacular, drop the ‘Cllr’, and use people’s first names for our last meeting together.

We have already thanked Margaret (Crick) for her efforts as Chair of this meeting, but I would also like to thank all those other Chairs who may not have had such a starring role – overseeing scrutiny, planning, audit and governance and other committees. My thanks therefore go to Andy Foulsham, Nathan Boyd, Max Thompson and Bob (Johnston) before him, Alison (Jenner) for her work on Licensing, and Hayleigh Gascoigne and David Grant before her, for their amazing work helping to establish the Climate Emergency Advisory Committee, which most of us know as CEAC, and steering our response to the climate emergency. Thanks of course to all those members serving on those committees, while perhaps not as obvious as cabinet roles, your work is key to all the council does, and we appreciate you for it. Looking around the room, I also remember others who have made a special contribution to the council and I apologise to those that I may have forgotten.

Recently I have asked cabinet members to look back over their time since their appointment and wanted to pull out some of the more significant achievements of this administration. I think we have focussed on the work of Andy Crawford enough this evening, the budget he has presented tonight has set our council on a steady financial footing for years to come, with no cuts to frontline services, in which we are responding to our most vulnerable residents, and one that we are investing in valuable infrastructure for our communities. – the fact that is has been voted through unanimously this evening attests to it sound nature and I am grateful for that.

But of course, he doesn’t just do the budget, his work with our property team has brought clarity and we are happy to deliver the Central Abingdon Regeneration Framework to shape the future of our property in Abingdon, and the work we have done to bring our grounds maintenance teams in house has made sure that we have more control over our property and its management.

We have put climate at the centre of every decision we make at the council, creating CEAC alongside a strong climate action team which helps shape our response to the climate emergency – we have already spoken about decarbonisation tonight at leisure centres in Faringdon, Wantage and Abingdon, but should also mention the Climate Action Fund, of which its second round of awards has just been announced, benefiting community groups across the district to help shape their local environment.

We have made significant improvements to community infrastructure across the district with investment in our leisure centres, a learner pool for Wantage and funds to start work on the Botley Pavilion, and a sports pitch for Faringdon. We have EV Charging points in several of our carparks with news just in that their usage has seen a significant uptick recently, and parishes like Shrivenham, Kingston Bagpuize, Uffington, Grove and Chilton all seeing significant infrastructure projects with new sports pavilions, community gardens, maintenance equipment and even an amphitheatre created for community use.

Our community lottery has been a great success, generating much needed funds for good causes across the district; over the last few weeks we have announced the recipients of the lottery’s community fund, and I was delighted to visit a Yellow Submarine café yesterday to see how this money is directly benefitting a fantastic local charity.

We have heard a great deal about the community hub over the last few years; set up in response to covid, this is now the first port of call for support for all our residents and is vital to our response to our community. Particularly, I am very proud that we are able to continue supporting the hub – giving our residents the security to know that we will be there for them when they need us most. I would like to thank Helen in particular for all her work with the community, putting health and wellbeing at the forefront.

My deputy, Neil (Fawcett), has been strengthening relationships so that this council does not act in isolation, but in partnership with key organisations in the region including other councils in Oxfordshire and beyond, working with our 5Cs partners, and leading our response and engagement with Government. He works on significant projects continuing to improve the contract, leading our response to the Arc-Cam Arc and the Pan Regional Partnership and ensuring our concerns over the proposed reservoir are known locally, regionally and nationally.

We have good people in the cabinet, but in particular I’d like to mention Debby (Hallett), who might think she gets ignored sometimes as her portfolio may not be the most flashy. However, she has quietly got on with the tasks in hand and has achieved probably some of the more significant pieces of work for the council over the years: policies aren’t usually exciting but think of the benefits we have seen from our corporate plan, setting out our aspirations on which all our work has been based – we have championed transparency and accountability with performance reports reflecting our progress alongside our new data hub. She has worked alongside officers overseeing the transformation programme producing efficiencies and giving better service to our residents. Her work on planning policy with the new joint design guide and now our work on the joint local plan is both a reflection of our ambitions for ‘people friendly planning’ and is an exemplar of partnership working with our neighbours in South Oxfordshire.

I would like to thank current cabinet members, and both Catherine (Webber) and Jenny (Hannaby) before them, for their dedication and hard work over the years

It shouldn’t all be about cabinet members though – cabinet members are also ward members, and it is there that we all help shape our local areas and work for our residents – to me the most important part of our role. Similar to my request to cabinet members I would like to ask you all what your most significant achievements have been as ward members – how have you helped change your community for the better. I am sure we can all look back feel a little bit of pride in how we have helped our residents – and I would like to thank all of you for your commitment over the years.

For me, and I am sure many of you, the work of the council, our ideas, principles and aspirations would not be realised without the hard work and dedication of our officers. Over the last few years we have seen a worldwide pandemic, war in Europe and further afield, the movement of refugees into our district for whom we have to care, and a cost of living crisis that has generated significant hardship for many of our residents. Our team of officers have achieved so much under such trying circumstances and the fact that we have got through it all stronger than ever is testament to their professionalism – I would like to applaud our officer team.

As we all go into the election, uncertainty abounds. We do not know who will be here to join us again in May, we do not know what the next administration will look like, but I would like to wish every one of you, all the best for the future.

Thank you.