Wednesday, 26 February 2014

It's everyone's business to help build a strong economy

One of the County Council’s key priorities is the Economy. We are very fortunate in the South East where the economy is stronger than other parts of the Country but, nevertheless, we are committed to doing what we can to support our existing businesses, encourage new start-ups and promote West Sussex as the place for other companies to come and locate.

Central Government has made the decision to give back to County Councils a proportion of the rates that businesses pay. They see it as an important driver for local authorities such as West Sussex County Council as it puts the emphasis on a Council’s ability to build strong relationships with its business community and take a pro-active approach to working with our local companies – something we feel we’ve always done.

So for me it is important for the County Council to continue to have an ongoing dialogue with businesses, listening to and responding to their needs when making decisions.

This has been the direction of travel for the last three years and I have been heartened by the relationships built. But there is so much more to be done, which is why I attended the Lancing Business Park AGM last Thursday. This is the 2nd largest Business Park in the county where 225 business of various sizes - from a brewery to precision engineering and much in between - are providing more than 2,000 jobs.

Five years ago the Business Park gained BID (Business Improvement District) status which has been a success. I was struck by the diverse range of businesses, small medium enterprises in the park as well as the real business community spirit at the AGM and I was grateful for being made so welcome.

It was good to see the local MP Tim Loughton at the meeting and hear him speak. Tim has organised a jobs fair on the 8th March at Northbrook College which the County Council wholeheartedly supports. And Enterprise Week 2014 is fast approaching, running from March 17 to March 24, which we also support. So we are all helping to build a strong economy.

A recent and successful project of the County Council has been our Be the Business grants. This was a scheme we launched last year where we invited businesses to apply for funding from a pot of money we made available. At the end of last year we provided more than £250,000 in grants to local businesses, including start-ups which of course help to inject new blood into our economy.

It was so successful we have decided to do the same again this year and will be launching that over the coming months.

As well as Be The Business we also have the Social Enterprise Fund which last year saw £273,000 given to 14 local Social Enterprises looking to grow their organisations, as well as some starting new social ventures to benefit their local communities.

The Social Enterprise Fund is also providing a package of support to those successful applicants who received funding. This coming year we have increased our Social Enterprise Fund to £350,000, recognising how successful and valued it has been.

All part of our effort to invest in and support the business community in West Sussex.

Best wishes,

Email alertsAlert me -  Sign up to the latest Leader's blog email alerts 

Monday, 17 February 2014

Public Interest Debate to hear views about unitary status

Friday’s County Council meeting was lively and there was certainly lots of debate in the council chamber.

As well as discussions around our £535 million budget for 2014/15, two motions were also put before the County Council by Opposition councillors about West Sussex County Council becoming a unitary authority .

Currently there are three tiers of local government in West Sussex – town and parish councils, our seven district and borough councils and WSCC.

Each council provides many different services, for example the district or borough councils are responsible for collecting the rubbish and recycling material, housing services, benefits, food safety, some parks and green spaces, leisure facilities and collecting council tax and the town and parish councils provide that grass-roots link very local services and amenities.

The county council deals with what comes from our residents’ bins - the rubbish or recyclables collected - our huge road network, West Sussex Fire and Rescue Service, schools and all important children’s services, as well as adult social care services and our libraries to name but a few of the services people come into contact with every day, often without even realising.

West Sussex County Council actually delivers around 80% of the public services in the county but there are many things that we all do together and that we all have a duty to get right. Our responsibilities around safeguarding and making sure our most vulnerable residents are safe and protected for example, ensuring that we all do our bit to promote our areas of West Sussex as a great place to live, visit and do business. And, most recently, our new roles around the provision of some health services as well.

So, as you read this you may just wonder why don’t we all join together to make one unitary authority that provides all the services. That was what was at the heart of Friday’s proposition in the council chamber and that was very much part of the debate.

The views were thoughtful and it was interesting to hear the range of opinions.

So why don’t we just do it? Well, the answer to that is there is no legislation to make that happen now. But, sometime in the future, there may well be.

If that were to happen it would be a huge step with considerable upheaval, as with any merger.

And while one of the arguments for this approach is the money any such move would save – and that is potentially correct – there would be a considerable cost to making it happen in the first place.

I think it’s important to hear what the public have to say and what our district and borough councillors and town and parish councillors think.

This is not a decision for the County Council to arrogantly make without any reference or dialogue with our partners and residents. So, on Friday, we proposed that a Public Interest Debate should be held with our district and borough councillors and that we should organise a county-wide public consultation to gather views and opinions. I’m pleased to say this was agreed.

So there is some work to do and I really look forward to holding this Public Interest Debate and seeking, hearing and listening to your views.

I’ll keep you posted with plans as they progress over the coming weeks and months.

Of course nothing can or will happen without legislation but in the event that it becomes a possibility in the future we will have a good understanding of what is right for this county and what our residents think.

With best wishes

Email alertsAlert me -  Sign up to the latest Leader's blog email alerts 

Wednesday, 12 February 2014

Friday's budget meeting

On Friday, there is a full meeting of West Sussex County Council. It is arguably the most important meeting of the year because the budget for the next 12 months will be debated and agreed.

This week I have been writing my speech and as I write it I have been reflecting on what the Council has achieved.

Three years ago we agreed a three year savings plan which identified £79 million pounds of savings from the Council’s budget. It was a big challenge and we had to make some very difficult decisions.

At the time there were calls from the Opposition party to raid savings in order not to make some difficult decisions. That would have jeopardised the Council’s financial standing, and certainly we would never have been able to use our reserves like we did to help with the serious flooding in 2012-13 or fund Operation Watershed. Reserves are partly for – excuse the pun - a rainy day and considering the weather, it is very important to have that money to help our residents in an emergency.

As the Government continues to bear down on public spending, once again we have to look for further savings. This time it becomes harder still.

There are many more financial uncertainties for the County Council in the next 4 years and therefore we have focused on making savings of £55 million pounds over the next 2 years, which will be part of Friday’s budget proposal.

The County Council is moving to a Commissioning Council model and in doing so we have focused on 3 key priorities; Start of Life, Economy and Later Life. We’ve done this in order to be very clear about the outcomes we want to achieve for our residents.

Underling these priorities are some key principles.

• We will be there in an emergency.
• We will help residents and communities to help themselves.
• We continue to care and safeguard our very weak and vulnerable
• We will minimise the burden to taxpayers.

I describe the County Council as a traditional Conservative Council and the 3 key priorities and our principles demonstrates that, but there is one achievement that stands out more than any other – for the fourth year in a row we are proposing no Council Tax increase for our residents.

I am very aware that, for the majority of households, incomes have not increased for some time, yet the household bills such as food and energy have risen dramatically.

Our part in helping with the strain of the rising cost of living faced by our residents is not to subject them to additional increases from us from our Council Tax bill. To do that we have taken the Government’s incentive once again in order to help our residents.

Over the last 3 years we have really kept a tight control of the finances and we have had underspends as a result. These have not been tucked away in reserves. We are investing back to our communities so they can have the benefit. After all, it is the taxpayers’ money in the first place.

That is why we will be announcing in the budget that we will be investing more than we are saving in the next year, spending our money where our residents want and need it most.

So on Friday, in presenting the budget, I will announce 10 key areas of investment, including a £15 million pound investment in improving more rural and urban roads across the County, on top of what the County Council does every year as part of its roads maintenance programme, a £12 million investment in education in Worthing, including a new secondary school and additional school places, and a £6.25 million injection into social care for adults.

I will also ask full council to agree a further £3.3 million investment in the County Council’s Think Family programme to support West Sussex’s most troubled families who need additional support to ensure that their children grow up with the best possible start in life.

We are also planning to make a further £1 million available to encourage communities to act against flooding as part of Operation Watershed 2014 and will also ask council to approve £1.25 million improvements to Queen’s Square in Crawley.

Last year’s Be the Business scheme – where we offered new, start up and existing businesses the chance to bid for funding - was so successful we are planning on doing it again this year by offering another £500,000 in grants.

So there’s lots of good news in our budget.

We will continue over the coming years to bear down on costs and to get the very best outcome for our residents at the best price for the taxpayer.

That’s our commitment. We need to find savings but being there for the weak, the vulnerable and those who do not have the best start in life is what matters to us. It’s those ideals that are very high on the priority list for the County Council, along with Safeguarding, and there is nothing wrong or immoral in making sure that every penny spent in those areas represents really good value for money. A simple principle that is often forgotten – but never at this County Council.

Best wishes

Email alertsAlert me -  Sign up to the latest Leader's blog email alerts 

Tuesday, 4 February 2014

A significant week

Last week there were several significant meetings at the County Council.

On Monday, I was part of the appointing panel who met to interview the
candidates for the Chief Operating Officer and Transformation Director posts.

As a result, we have two names to recommend to the Full Council meeting on Friday 14 February when it will consider the proposed changes to the structure: Diane Ashby for Chief Operating Officer and Gill Steward for Transformation Director.

Diane Ashby has worked for the County Council for the last six years and has previous commercial experience, having worked for Marks and Spencer and The Body Shop. Gill Steward has 17 years’ corporate management experience in the public sector, most recently as Corporate Director for three unitary authorities.

After many months of work, the proposed draft budget went before our Cabinet meeting last Tuesday, again for recommendation to the Full Council meeting later this month.

In previous blogs I have written about the difficult financial landscape we face, not only because we will have a lot less money, but as there is a degree of uncertainty on our funding in the future. This is why we are looking at a two-year savings plan of £55 million in the proposed budget, to be followed by a further two-year programme (work on this second part is currently underway).

We are just coming to the end of a three-year programme which successfully saved £79 million. We have been able to make considerable savings from being very careful with our tax payers money, living within our means, reducing our borrowing and therefore cutting the cost of the payments, as well as very good housekeeping and tight financial control.

The Government has again offered an incentive to councils who don’t increase council tax. Once again we are proposing to accept this, which would mean for the fourth year running that there wouldn’t be an increase from the County Council on council tax bills.

We have also been able to increase funding by £6.25 million into Adults’ Services, and have committed £30 million into improving unclassified roads across the county. We are investing in school improvement in Worthing (under the Age of Transfer project) and are building more much-needed classrooms along with other school improvements across the county.

In the years ahead we are focusing on three key areas: ‘Start of Life’ giving all children the best of start of life, ‘Economy’ to maintain and sustain the future economic prosperity across the county, and ‘Later Life’ to ensure residents are independent and well in later life. Underpinning these are some important principles; we will be there in an emergency, and we will be helping residents to help themselves.

As a County Council we are looking at the best outcomes around these areas, and work is well underway on how we will achieve them. Along with all councils across the land, we have to evolve and adapt to new ways of working and make the most of our much more limited income. That of course does and will mean change.

Linked in with supporting the economy, last year we commissioned an Independent Economic Review to help us understand what businesses require of us and how we can better engage with the business community. Earlier in the week these findings were presented in a draft report to Cabinet. This was very informative and helpful and we are now working on these findings – which you will hear more about in the coming months.

Friday also marked the last day of our outgoing Chief Executive Kieran Stigant. On Friday afternoon I attended a farewell event for Kieran, and it was good to see so many council officers and Members there to say their goodbyes. We all wish Kieran all the best for the future.

Best wishes,

Email alertsAlert me -  Sign up to the latest Leader's blog email alerts