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Leaders Statement – 18 May 2021

Cllr Emily Smith, Leader of Vale of White Horse District Council, delivered her Leaders Statement to Council at the meeting on 18 May 2021

Local Election Success

First, I want to say a huge thank you to all our officers for their mammoth efforts to run a covid secure election so successfully.

Having County Council, District and Town by-elections, Police and Crime Commissioner and Neighbourhood Plan elections on the same day was complicated enough, but to manage this in a covid safe and new way, with a 4-day long count, at short notice, was a challenging task which I think they performed excellently. 

As members know, staff from across the council were part of election effort and I thank them all for their incredible work.

I congratulate and welcome Cllr Ben Mabbett back to this council after his by-election win.

I also congratulate Cllr Barber on his election to Police and Crime Commissioner for the Thames Valley and all the County Councillors elected and re-elected across the Vale district. I look forward to working with them on behalf of the local people we all represent.

As most members will be aware, at the Oxfordshire County Council AGM today, Cllr Liz Leffman was elected as their new Council Leader, heading up a new LibDem/Green/Labour administration. I will be inviting Cllr Leffman to meet with me as soon as possible, to discuss how our two councils can continue to work together in the interests of Vale residents.

New Environment Sub-Group of the Growth Board

As my term as Chair of the Growth Board comes to an end (in June at the next meeting) I am really excited to report that the creation of a brand-new Growth Board Sub-group has been formalised and we have now created an Environment Sub-Group.

I have appointed Cllr Catherine Webber to represent us on the Environment Sub-Group as well as our representative on the new Local Nature Partnership.

The Growth Board has been working get an Oxfordshire Local Nature Partnership established to aid collaborative efforts on biodiversity and nature recovery.

There has been a notable change in focus of the Growth Board over the past two years since I have been vice-chair and then chair of this pan-Oxfordshire partnership. Climate and the environment now have a far great prominence, so it is pleasing that Oxford Civic Society have invited me to a panel debate this Saturday to talk about the work the Growth Board are doing on achieving zero carbon in Oxfordshire.

Neighbourhood Plans

This collective commitment to tackling the climate emergency is also evident in the three Neighbourhood Plans we formally approved earlier this evening.

Such a huge amount of work, over many years has gone into these excellent plans and I know through my personal involvement with the steering group for the North Hinksey Neighbourhood Plan there is huge frustration that national building regulations and national planning policies do not allow Neighbourhood Plans to go as far as communities would like in terms of low carbon building in particular.

Never-the-less, all three of our new neighbourhood plans include many positive policies and improve our Planning Committee’s ability to understand the needs and wishes of the respective communities.

I thank and congratulate all the volunteers involved in the Shrivenham, Cumnor and North Hinksey Neighbourhood Plans for your work and for the resounding support that you all received at referendum.

Virtual Meetings

I cannot fail to acknowledge that we are meeting today for the first time in person for well over a year because the legislation allowing virtual meetings has lapsed.

Our officers have worked incredibly hard to find a way to run formal council meetings in line with covid safety rules – as have councils up and down the country. I thank senior officers for their flexible approach and care for our staff teams and minimising the number of officers that have had to attend Milton park and maximising the number joining us from home.

Frustratingly, without an extension to the Covid legislation or proxy voting being allowed, there is less flexibility for elected members. We have to attend in person for our participation in the meeting to be formally recognised, or to be able to vote. It is noticeable that more than a dozen councillors who are not yet vaccinated, or are vulnerable or live with vulnerable people, are not here in person this evening. I thank the Chair for allowing them to speak, but for hard working councillors to be put in this position is not good enough.

This council will be responding to the government’s call for evidence on virtual and hybrid council meetings, as will the Local Government Association, but I encourage individual members to respond as well. We must continue to push for an urgent change in legislation for virtual council meetings to be allowed, as they have been for the past year so successfully.

Reflecting on the past municipal year

And finally, as it is the Annual Council meeting, I felt it would be appropriate to end by quickly reflecting on what has been a challenging year. It has changed how we go about our business, but I am proud of how – as councillors – we’ve pulled together to meet those challenges. Needless to say, I also proud of how our officers have risen to the significant challenges presented before them. I believe together we have put ourselves in a good position to help ensure we can provide strong support for our residents and businesses in the Vale as lockdown restrictions ease.