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Leader’s statement – 22 February 2024

A statement from Cllr Bethia Thomas, Leader of Vale of White Horse District Council

I’d like to begin with a big thank you for the very many officers and members involved in the process of setting the budget. I’m very pleased that we have once again been able to present a balanced budget to Council that maintains our excellent public services. That this is against a backdrop of other councils having to cut services is testament to the positive progress we have made in the past five years.

In particular I’d like to thank Cllr Crawford for his diligence, care and thorough inspection and interrogation of all the issues in the oversight of this budget.

Not only are we able to maintain services, I’m delighted that we’re able to continue our financial contributions to the vital ongoing community support provided by the Citizens Advice Bureau and Wantage Independent Advice Centre.

Thanks also go to Cllr Pighills for her leadership to help ensure a positive future for the Beacon – funding for the centre has been built into our Medium Term Financial Plan for the next five years, ensuring we are able to support this much needed and valued public asset for years to come, providing an excellent arts programme and community facilities where they’re needed.

The financial situation facing all councils remains challenging, not just taking into account the increased costs caused by the past year or two of sky-high inflation, but also because of uncertainty from central government over local authority finances. We have had to say this every time we come to budget-setting time for many years now, and as we’ve seen with authorities in other parts of the country issuing Section 114 notices – councils are coming to the end of what they can manage, and with annual settlements being confirmed at the last minute, it’s incredibly challenging to plan for the medium and long term.

Looking back to the Vale though, I’d like to thank officers and Members for their hard work through the recent flooding and providing support and guidance to residents and businesses. River levels remain high and groundwater hasn’t yet begun to drain away, and current forecasts mean that we will need to remain on high alert.

Our consultation into the forthcoming Joint Local Plan is coming to an end, but there’s still time for people to comment at – it closes on Monday. As of this afternoon we’ve had 447 responses, which is a fantastic response, and we can expect even more than that as there is usually a rush of responses in the last few days of any consultation.  Officers have been around the districts and had conversations with nearly 600 residents, including a lot who had never heard of a Local Plan before thanks to the innovative new approaches we’re taking to engage with our communities.  We’ve also been speaking with community groups that represent residents who are usually unlikely to respond to Local Plan consultations, or have historically found it difficult. Four years ago we made a commitment to broaden our reach, and I’m pleased to see that in action. Just this week, officers from Planning Policy and Communications and Engagement have been speaking with young college-age residents to bring the Local Plan to their attention – what we do affects them as much as anyone – if not more, and so it’s great to see that we’re starting to bring them on board with council matters.

I’m now regularly meeting with the Leader of the Greens to work constructively in a cross-party way, so thank you to Cllr Briggs and Cllr James for their positive approach to these meetings.

Finally, I’d like to say a big thank you to our residents – in the past month it’s been announced that once again, thanks to their hard work, the Vale is up there as one of the very best recycling districts in England – there will always be lots to do in this area, particularly now we’re focusing on what we can all do to reduce and reuse things we’re finished with, rather than just recycling it – but we’re building from a very strong position with that work.

This financial year, like many others in recent memory, has come with its share of challenges, but I’m very pleased and proud that we’re tackling them so positively and coming out the other side often in an even stronger position.