Leader’s Blog

Calling for clarity on the May elections

11 January 2021 – Leader of Vale of White Horse District Council, Cllr Emily Smith writes: I have written a letter to has written to the he Rt. Hon. Robert Jenrick MP Secretary of State for Housing, Communities & Local Government asking for clarity about the proposed elections in May and whether they will go ahead or not.

Community action to tackle the climate emergency

7 December – Leader of Vale of White Horse District Council, Cllr Emily Smith writes: At the end of National Tree Week, I took my son along to plant a range of native trees in Botley. North Hinksey Parish Council organised this brilliant community activity which brought people of all ages from around the parish together. 

Photo of Councillor Emily Smith leader of Vale District Council planting trees with her son
Above: Photo of Cllr Emily Smith planting trees with her son

The Vale is keen to increase tree cover and biodiversity across the district, but we can’t do it alone. Our new Corporate Plan includes three programmes under our Tackling the Climate Emergency Theme, including one on ‘encouraging the wider district community to reduce its carbon footprint’. Community events like this one in Botley are just the sort of thing we had in mind and it is great to see local people getting involved. 

It was a beautiful day, I learnt a lot about trees and my eight-year-old “had even more fun that he was expecting!” We are looking forward to seeing these trees grow. 

Guest blog

18 November – Cllr Emily Smith writes: I am passionate about encouraging people of all ages and backgrounds to get involved in local politics. The decisions we make are better when the councillors making policy reflect the district we represent.   

I asked Cabinet Member Bethia Thomas (pictured above) about how she ended up being elected a District Councillor last year and how she is finding it:

The last couple of weeks have seen the October half term holidays leading straight into a national lockdown. Even without lock down, this time of year can be challenging for a number of reasons, the weather is never that good and everyone is cooped up together, but for me it also marks a significant point in my life, reminding me of the time when I was suddenly and unexpectedly made a single parent – last week made it eight years.

Back then I was a very different person. I had two very small children to look after, I had no job, my confidence was very low, and with no family around to support me, the idea of getting back into the job market terrified me – how was I going to cope?

Fortunately a friend of mine was running a course at the time which was designed to help women who had stepped out of the job market to start a family regain their professional confidence and identify what really interested them, what they were good at, and what would allow them to juggle some sort of work life balance.

I am not sure if I was really ready for it at the time, but I signed up anyway, and soon realised that my underlying passion was for the community around me – without family nearby, my local community became the next best thing and I wanted to do my bit to support them as much as they had supported me. I also realised that I wanted to help people like me as much I could – not that I knew how I could ever be an advocate for single parents, but that I knew that was what I wanted to do.

Several years went by and I managed to cobble together something that resembled a career. I started writing for the local paper and got to know more about my community because of it. I realised how many wonderful people there were doing the things they were passionate about, and that passion rubbed off on me too.

I also started to work for the town, in a role promoting the town centre in a joint initiative to increase foot fall and support local business. I worked my socks off for that, but through it all, I knew that my main priority was my children, and that they came first, so I never felt able to push my career any further, there were just not enough hours in the day when they were younger.

Last year though, I did have an opportunity to do something I thought I would be good at. With my children’s okay, I stood for council in the district elections. At the time I didn’t know that I would win, but knew if I did, I could make a real change, and bring a different perspective to the role. With the remarkable shift in local politics that we saw locally, not only did I win my ward, but I soon decided that I ought to stand for cabinet – with my local business experience I though I might be able to offer something more.

Within a few months, I had gone from a resident to district councillor and cabinet member– it was a whirlwind, but a step that I am so happy to have taken. Finally, I could achieve my goals, representing and supporting my community and speaking up for people like me. My proudest moment came earlier this year when I spoke to council about the decision to give single parents with children under five a one hundred percent council tax reduction – after all I too had been one of those parents, and think that this decision showed our support for the most vulnerable residents in our area.

In a time where so many people are suffering because of the pandemic, I would like to think I bring a different perspective to the council, broadening our vision, and representing a sector that may not be usual in these settings. I can’t say for certain, but I have a strong suspicion that I may be the only cabinet member who claims tax credits alongside the single person’s council tax reduction, and I am proud of that – it makes me who I am, it allows me to recognise and speak up for others in my situation, and it brings real change.

Remembrance Day

Leader of Vale of White Horse District Council, Cllr Emily Smith writes – 9 November:

The Remembrance Day service at the Commonwealth War Graves in Botley usually attracts 600+ people, young and old, and from all over the world. This year’s event was a little different as just 30 of us marked the occasion and paid our respects to those who lost their lives during international conflicts.  

I was pleased to be able to lay a wreath here on behalf of the council and our district alongside members of the armed forces from Britain, Europe, and the Commonwealth as well as local leaders such as the Deputy Lord Mayor of Oxford, Altaf Khan (pictured below)

We will remember them.

What’s wrong with the Planning for the Future White paper?

Guest blog by Cllr Debby Hallet:

We all agree — the country needs more houses that people can afford.

Government thinks that the solution is to build more houses faster. They think the main impediment to this is the slow speed of the current planning system. So they are proposing changes to take away some of the local decision making.

One of their previous ideas was to allow disused office space to be turned into housing without need for planning permission. That led to greedy developers across the country producing tiny box-like flats where people are crammed into spaces with no windows. Govt recently changed its mind and now requires habitable space to have natural light.

The planning system adds value; it makes spaces liveable for human beings.

Let’s look at the problem in a systematic way. In any system, when you don’t get the outcome you expect, you can assess three things:

  1. Make sure you are doing things right. Govt says local planning authorities aren’t giving permissions fast enough. This assumes faster movement through the planning system will bring more houses that people can afford.
  2. Make sure you are doing the right things. Govt says there should be more schemes allowed under permitted development, assuming that if developers have a free hand in what they build, unencumbered by the local planning authorities’ processes, there will be more houses that people can afford.
  3. How do we decide what is right? Make sure you are aiming at the right thing. Govt thinks that developers are the answer to the problem of not enough houses that people can afford.

I think Govt is aiming at the wrong target.

Developers are in the business of making as much profit as possible though the houses they sell. That’s OK; it’s what they do.

  • Our objective in Vale is to provide more houses that people can afford. We have a policy that requires a percentage of each major development to be ‘affordable’. (The Govt definition of ‘affordable’ is a house available at 80% or less of market price. In Vale, that still isn’t affordable to a person on a median income, so even the best intentioned policy is ineffective. Today we must think in terms of ‘houses that people can afford’.) But developers claim the policy lessens their profits. They’re right; it does.
  • So developers sit on permitted plans, because they know land values and therefore house prices will continue to rise, and they will build their houses when the profits are high.

I’m not distracted by the harm that is forecast to come from the various proposals in Govt’s Planning for the Future. (But there is a lot of harm.) I’m focussed on how the overall proposed solution doesn’t solve the problem.

Government thinks that the reason we don’t have enough affordable houses is that developers don’t get planning permission fast enough to build the number of houses we need for prices to come down to an affordable level.

However, I think that expecting profit-hungry developers to solve our problem of a shortage of affordable housing on ever increasing land value is doomed to fail because it’s the wrong solution.  

It’s the wrong solution. It makes no sense to say that the way to provide more houses that people can afford is to rely on for-profit developers to provide them for us.

Pride month

Leader of Vale of White Horse District Council, Cllr Emily Smith writes:

As Pride month draws to a close we look back to last year when Vale members celebrated diversity and humanity at the first ever Abingdon Pride. It was such a positive community event and we look forward to taking part in Pride events next year.

The Post-Covid Renewal   

Leader of Vale of White Horse District Council, Cllr Emily Smith writes:

Before Covid-19, Vale councillors had nearly finished our new Corporate Plan, setting out the council’s priorities for the coming four years. After nine weeks of lockdown the world is looking quite different and the work of the council has been transformed.

The government has tasked the Oxfordshire Local Enterprise Partnership with producing an economic ‘Recovery Plan’ for the county. With high unemployment predicted it is essential that our local businesses get all the support they need, but we should not stop at the local economy; we have a once in a generation opportunity to do all sorts of things better.

While this has been a challenging time for many, especially those who have been ill or lost loved ones, it has been fascinating to see lockdown has highlighted what is important. We have all made adjustments, and many of them positive for community, public health, and the planet.

We have been spending more time with family, working from home, cycling and walking more, buying local produce, breathing cleaner air, having more contact with wildlife, buying fewer clothes and toys, supporting our neighbours, housing our rough sleepers, fixing and reusing things, using technology to connect more with others… I do not want to lose these positives, and I believe there is public appetite for a fresh approach – where health and well-being are valued more that GDP.

So, Vale councillors are working on our own ‘Recovery Plan’. A plan in lieu of a Corporate Plan during this post-Covid period as we establish what the new normal is. A plan with our core values of community engagement, climate action and supporting the most vulnerable at its heart. A plan setting out how the council will do things differently.

I am not keen on the term ‘Recovery Plan’ as it implies going back to how things were before. Even if we were able to return to business as usual, I do not think we should.

Daily exercise during lockdown

Leader of Vale of White Horse District Council, Cllr Emily Smith writes:

With the lock down continuing I have started a thread of pictures on twitter of where people are taking their daily exercise all around the Vale. Please do add to it. https://twitter.com/emilysmithLD/status/1249335089110147072

International Women’s Day: Some positive reflections, some work still to do…

Leader of Vale of White Horse District Council, Cllr Emily Smith writes:

International Women’s Day is a chance to reflect and remind ourselves to keep working for gender equality.  

Some of Vale’s female councillors

Across the UK the gender pay gap among full-time employees stands at 8.9% and has only improved by 0.6% since 2012. The number of women elected as councillors in England is still only 35%. So, I am proud to lead a council which is bucking the trend: Vale of White Horse District Council does not have a gender pay gap at all! (see the data at https://www.whitehorsedc.gov.uk/vale-of-white-horse-district-council/about-the-council/working-with-us/)

It is also fantastic that Vale residents have elected 38 councillors who are 47% women AND 78% of our cabinet are women.

This is important because a councillor’s job is literally representing our residents. We make better decisions when we understand all their implications and consider the views of every section of our community.

Since getting involved in politics, I have been surrounded by brilliant women politicians who have shown me how to get involved and encouraged me to stand for election. But now as council leader I have more contact with other councils and national government where gender (and other forms of) inequality is more clearly apparent.

While it is depressing to be in so many regional meetings where men dominate, it does spur me on to speak up and volunteer for additional responsibilities: If I can use my position to show others that women in political leadership roles is ‘normal’ I hope the women around me feel more confident about getting involved themselves. I see encouraging individuals, of all under-represented groups but especially women, is part of my job.

For anyone thinking of being a local councillor do check out the information and advice at beacouncillor.co.uk

Climate Action in Botley

Leader of Vale of White Horse District Council, Cllr Emily Smith writes:

Our Climate Emergency Advisory Committee Chair, Cllr David Grant, and I had a brilliant time at the Big Botley Green day this weekend.

The aim was to share information about the grassroots community action to improve our environment, get members of the public involved and build connections.

A series of short talks included one from David and I about the Vale’s work so far to address the climate emergency and a panel session to generate ideas for local community action.

It was great to have members of the Vale’s environmental enforcement and waste and recycling teams (above photo) there to speak to residents about all things waste and recycling. They had a stall alongside Cyclox, Oxford Food bank, Cosy Homes, Extinction Rebellion, Oxford Badger Group, OxAir and so many more.

Other attractions included a plant swap, bring and take, Morris dancing, air quality monitoring, vegetarian food available, mass litter picking session, face painting, cake…all sorts happening over two halls in West Way. 

It really was an inspiring day; so much will to act. So much already happening in Botley and beyond. And so much more we can do locally to improve our environment and tackle the climate emergency.

Thanks to North Hinksey Parish Council and the Associate of Botley Communities for getting this event of the ground – David and I are already looking forward to the next one.

Grove station 

Leader of Vale of White Horse District Council, Cllr Emily Smith writes:

At a recent Growth Board meeting I heard a presentation from Network Rail, the County Council and the Department for Transport on the Oxfordshire Rail Corridor Strategy.  This set out priorities for rail investment over the coming years to support housing and employment growth across the county.

I’m really pleased to see that that this includes plans for the new Grove station but concerned that this isn’t planned to happen until 2024, given that one of the most common complaints I and my fellow councillors receive is about transport infrastructure not keeping pace with house building.

I firmly believe that a new station will help traffic congestion around Didcot as people commuting by train often drive to Didcot and park there. A new station will also improve air quality and contribute to our desperate need to tackle the climate emergency, a subject I care deeply about.

Given the potential for additional housing and developer contributions from housing already coming in Grove, which could contribute to the £20 million bill, I would really like to see this happen sooner.  I am very keen to work with local and national partners, including local businesses, to identify funding and bring the Grove station forward as soon as possible.

Climate Change 

Leader of Vale of White Horse District Council, Cllr Emily Smith writes:

The new year is a great opportunity to make plans for the future – and this is the year I really hope we can take some meaningful actions in tackling the significant challenges presented by climate change

I’m really pleased that the Vale declared a Climate Emergency in 2019, and even more so that we then went on to set up the Climate Emergency Advisory Committee. In December we agreed new Carbon reduction targets; for the Council itself to become carbon neutral by 2030 and for the district as a whole to be carbon neutral by 2045.

Last year, many young people from the Vale took part in campaigns like the Youth Climate Strikes in Oxfords. Thanks to them and millions of others, the climate crisis really rose up the political agenda.

The increased awareness of our impact on the climate was evident to me over the Christmas period. I, and so many people around me, were talking about buying fewer gifts, using wrapping paper that can be recycled, and reducing the amount of meat consumed.

Then came the talk of New Year’s resolutions… my resolutions rarely last until the end of January, but when it comes to the climate, we cannot let that happen.

National planning policy currently prevents us from insisting on carbon neutral buildings and other standards we would like to have in our local plan and Neighbourhood plans. We need the government to allow us the freedom to insist on ‘greener’ building standards. To that end, we have responded to the government’s ‘Future Homes’ consultation making the case for tougher building regulations and for local councils to have more powers to insist on higher environmental standards than national legislation allows.

We ‘the council’ can take action to make our buildings more energy efficient, we can review our planning policies and we can take account of the environmental impact of all the decisions we take. But we cannot reach our goal to be a carbon neutral district alone.

There is a huge amount of will across our communities and amongst elected councillors to tackle the climate. The next step for the Vale is to work out how to have the greatest impact and communicate about initiatives that everyone living and working in the Vale can help with.

2019 was the year of awareness raising, 2020 needs to be the year we all take action.