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Leaders Statement – 8 December 2021

Cllr Emily Smith, Leader of Vale of White Horse District Council, delivered her Leaders Statement to Council at the meeting on 8 December 2021.

It really is a privilege to be leading this council through some significant changes and challenges. The dedication of members and officers to making the Vale a better place to live and work is apparent to me every day.

On top of the items already discuss during this council meeting, some of the matters approved by cabinet members since our last full council meeting Include:  

  • A new Technology Strategy, and action to introduce the much-needed Customer Relationship Management system that we promised after the problems with communication over the Brown Bin service this summer  
  • A review of Local Plan Part 1 to ensure 5 years on it is still compliant with national planning policy 
  • A new statement of community involvement setting out how we will engage with the public on planning matters 
  • A new Planning Enforcement Statement making the role of our enforcement team and the process we follow clearer to the public 
  • Approving the Household Support Grant for households struggling to afford food, heating, and other essential supplies 
  • And extending the grant support for local businesses impacted by covid – the current scheme is open for applications now.

Cabinet members are grateful to members of our Scrutiny Committees, Joint Audit and Governance, Climate Emergency Advisory Committee and Licensing Committees for your input and feedback on all council policies as they develop. Scrutiny is an essential part of good policy and decision making.  

An area I, and Cllr Hallett, have been pushing for greater scrutiny is the Oxfordshire Plan 2050. The response to the Regulation 18 Consultation was very encouraging, but the greater the response levels, the longer it takes to collate all the feedback. We have secured commitment that a report on the responses is, subject to the agreement of the committee chair, brought through the Vale (and the other district council) scrutiny committees early in the new year, to help inform the next stage of the plan’s development. 

Ox-Cam Arc Up in the Air 

The Oxfordshire Plan could gain even greater importance considering my growing concerns about the Oxford to Cambridge Arc project.

Despite reservations from the very beginning about this top-down government scheme, this council has engaged with government as ministers told us they were committed to working with us to achieve net zero and that the Arc was the way councils would be able to access funding for sustainable transport and social infrastructure for our residents locally. Arc Leaders Meetings have provided opportunities to work with neighbouring councils on the Environment Principles but most importantly offered a direct and regular line of communication with government ministers and senior civil servants to ensure the voice of our residents was heard nationally.

Alarmingly, in the Comprehensive Spending Review announcements last month, none of the expected funding for sustainable infrastructure in the Arc was forthcoming, there is no longer a minister for the Arc and the team of civil servants who were leading the project have been moved to other Levelling Up work. I was due to attend an Arc Leaders Meeting with other council leaders and Local Enterprise Partnership representatives last week to hear from civil servants about the new ministerial team’s plans for the Arc, but they pulled out at short notice. To be blunt, Councils across the Arc have now been left in Limbo.

While the government’s Arc project is far from universally popular here in the Vale, the fact that councils like ours have committed time, effort, and resource to engaging with the Arc team in good faith makes it incredibly frustrating to be left in limbo – not knowing what Mr Gove’s plan for the Arc region are, whether government is actually interested in tackling the climate emergency via that route and how councils are supposed to access the desperately needed government funding for sustainable travel and social infrastructure to support the homes we are committed to building.  

I will of course update members as soon as I know more – but given the Levelling Up White Paper has been delayed until next year, it may be some time. I have therefore asked council officers to pause all Arc specific work and engagement until further notice.

Covid-19  

You will be aware that covid cases are currently as high as they were in January on the Vale and that there is huge uncertainty about the new Omicron variant that has been found in Oxford. Thank you to our communications team, and elected members, for helping to spready the word about new restrictions to help keep us safe. Thank you to staff across the Council who remain engaged in a significant amount of COVID related activity.

This council has seen a significant increase in residents asking for help with food parcels and financial support because of the pandemic during November, reminding us that the pandemic continues to cause hardship for many people across the district and the vital lifeline that our services provide. This council will continue to offer support and information to support residents and local businesses for as long as is needed.

As ever, some of our officers will be on duty over Christmas to ensure residents have access to critical services and that we are able to respond to any urgent event. Others like our Community Hub and Environmental Health teams stand ready to work over Christmas yet again. I really hope this is not needed.

Christmas Greetings  

This year has been tough on us all – physically and emotionally – and members might be aware that over the past year, our council has tragically lost three dedicated officers who had more than 50 years of council service between them. This loss is felt across the council, and my thoughts are with their family, friends and close colleagues who are understandably heartbroken.

I hope that the Christmas break allows members to take a much-needed break. I wish everyone at the council and across the district a peaceful Christmas and good wishes for 2022.