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Leader’s statement – 16 February 2022

Cllr Emily Smith, Leader of Vale of White Horse District Council, delivered her Leader’s statement to Council at the meeting on 16 February 2022.

Vale Budget Approved

Since 2019 one of my top priorities has been getting this council’s finances under control. Despite a backdrop of real terms cuts in government funding, ongoing Covid related costs and losses, the budget for 2022/23 as approved this evening is a significant step towards financial stability. Our medium-term financial plan no longer runs out of money in 2024.

Officers and Cabinet members have worked together to identify significant savings without impacting delivery of services to the public. I am really pleased that this work will enable us to invest more in our corporate plan priorities and infrastructure such as leisure and open spaces for residents across the district.

Funding for Climate Action

On 4 February, Vale Cabinet signed off a new Climate Action Plan setting out steps we are taking to make this council carbon neutral by 2030. The plan brings into focus some of the significant work already being undertaken and was informed by some extremely useful feedback from parish councils, local climate action groups and from the council’s Climate Emergency Advisory Committee.

Cabinet also gave the go ahead to our new Climate Action Fund. Applications for this grant pot of £50,000 open on 14 March to help enable communities and local groups to take grass roots climate action or start projects to improve their local environment. I hope members will help spread the word about this fund and I look forward to seeing lots of people across the district getting involved. 

Oxfordshire County Council Budget

I was pleased to see that as part of their budget, Oxfordshire County Council is investing in several initiatives that will help further some of our shared objectives around tackling the climate emergency. In particular I noted:

  • Funding for the next stage of a Rail Feasibility Study which will help further the collective efforts to reopen a station at Grove
  • investment in active travel – which is also one of this council’s corporate objectives
  • and their commitment to roll out 20mph speed limits – which this council passed a motion calling for last year

There is lots happening locally to feel hopeful about, but there are also some significant threats that require our attention.

Abingdon Reservoir

Since passing a motion at our December meeting, raising climate concerns about revived plans for a large reservoir south of Abingdon to serve London and the south-east, I wrote to the CEOs of Thames Water and of OFWAT reiterating our opposition to their proposals and asking that a detailed calculation of the carbon impact of the scheme be carried out. Since then, I have a response from Thames Water’s CEO offering to discuss our concerns in more detail, and several Vale members attended a briefing session with Water Resources South-East. Sadly, this briefing did little to reassure many of the councillors present, but it is important that we all keep engaged as this proposal progresses and that we respond to the various consultations about the plans in line with our corporate objectives and the best interest of our residents.

Planning Policy

Work on the Oxfordshire Plan continues to take up much of my time. There is a real opportunity with this Oxfordshire-wide Spatial Plan to accelerate planning policies to protect and enhance our environment, ensure homes are energy efficient and more affordable to live in. By working with neighbouring districts, the city and the county councils we can help ensure there are good public transport links, that there is a spatial balance between employment sites, homes, services and access to nature.

However, it is becoming apparent that a steer on the rate of growth and housing targets needs addressing before we can move ahead with work on the planning policies on key issues like climate change, infrastructure and affordability of homes, that will help deliver the Oxfordshire Strategic Vision that the constituent councils have all committed to realising.

Meanwhile, work on our Joint Local Plan with South Oxfordshire is progressing well. A draft Joint Design Guide is out for public consultation until  15 March. As members will know, this guide is key is determining the type and style of homes and other buildings in our district and is used by planning officers and committee members when making decisions about planning application, so if you have ideas or views on the guide, please respond to the consultation.

Government’s Levelling Up White Paper

Related to planning, I was hoping that the Levelling Up White Paper from government would provide some information about the government’s planning reforms, but sadly the White Paper was not very detailed. It sets out a general narrative about moving investment and development outside of the South-East but I still have many questions about the future of the Arc, local government reform or planning changes. I hear an update on Planning Reform is due in the spring, but for now it is full steam ahead on our Joint Local Plan.

Thanks Vaccinators

Finally, with so much going on, it is easy to forget that covid rates remain incredibly high and that the pandemic continues to cause huge disruption, ill health and loss of life. As we know, the vaccination programme remains essential to protecting our communities. 12-17 year olds who are yet to be vaccinated are being encouraged to get their first or second jabs at the Kassam during half term, and from this week children aged 5-11 who are clinically vulnerable can expect to hear from their GP about getting vaccinated as well.

I would like to put on record my thanks to our officers, NHS and other public sector staff and all the volunteers involved in administering over 3.6million vaccinations across Oxfordshire, Berkshire and Buckinghamshire, for their ongoing efforts.