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Good evening. I stood before you a year ago as the new Executive Leader of the Joint Administration for Huntingdonshire District Council.

Twelve months on, and I am pleased to be able to update you on all that has been achieved in that time, which has seen us record better delivery and progress on our critical actions compared to the previous year.

But I want to start by placing on record my sincere thanks to the officers and Members who have supported everything achieved over the last year.

We committed that we would:

  • work in cooperation towards a greener, fairer Huntingdonshire

  • commend the excellent work undertaken by council staff

  • set a new strategic direction for the council.

The Joint Administration's key objectives over the last year would focus on the following:

  1. Tackling climate change and caring for the environment

  2. Enhancing employment opportunities and supporting businesses

  3. Supporting the needs of residents

  4. Improving the housing situation

  5. Strengthening our communities.

As I said last year, our ability to deliver these priorities would greatly depend upon the district's finances.
We inherited an £8 million structural deficit with no plan to address it. We inherited low reserves as the 'rainy day' they were reserved for arrived and stayed. The reserves look healthy until you realise they are either capital or ring-fenced reserves, which we cannot use to offset a budget deficit on our day-to-day expenditure.

Hence, our first challenge as a new administration was to get underneath those financial figures and understand the detail and not just what they meant for this year, but the years ahead because knowing the financial position underpins our operational and strategic decision–making. We know that over the next four years, we need to find ways to save money or generate income to combat rising costs, inflation and cuts in government grants.

We have not shied away from the fact that there would need to be some tough decisions that we have had to take, and this continues to be the case. Council's agreement on the budget principles gave a clear steer about how we should prioritise our thinking in making the savings needed.

We agreed that we would:

  • protect front-line services to our most vulnerable people to avoid individuals or families falling into crisis through our continued approaches built on prevention and early intervention

  • deliver a balanced budget, using our savings in the short term to insulate the residents of Huntingdonshire from service cuts due to global market issues

  • balance the need for fees, charges and tax increases with the demands on our services, our community's ability to pay and central government certainty over funding

  • look to make further pushes towards a more efficient council, maximising the use of technology and ensuring returns on investments where the council uses its own money

  • pause commercial investment activity in the short term whilst the market instability continues, but we will consider other options

  • have regard for the things that the community tell us are important in setting out our budget proposals.

As we have tried to support our residents through these times as best we can, we have also made commitments to support our staff by:

  • funding a 4% pay award

  • use of a windfall to make a one-off payment of £1,000 to permanent and contracted members in recognition of the cost-of-living crisis

  • introducing the Vivup - a benefits scheme which over 400 employees have signed up for to make regular savings on things such as their weekly shop

  • being open and transparent with staff about the resources we have

  • committing to co-produce a workforce strategy that addresses all staff recruitment, retention and reward.

So how have we done against the five objectives we set last year?

Tackling climate change and caring for the environment

We recognised that Huntingdonshire must proactively tackle the climate crisis and ecological emergency.

We acted upon this by agreeing on a Cost of Living and Climate Change motion on 12 October 2022, which recognised that the current cost of living and climate crises require joint attention to support the well-being of residents and businesses.

A Climate Crisis and Ecological Emergency was formally recognised at the Full Council meeting in February 2023, with the council's Climate Strategy and associated Action Plan also adopted. The strategy and action plan, developed throughout 2022, was drafted alongside service leads following councillor and stakeholder engagement last summer, along with a meeting with Anglia Ruskin University to involve young adults.

The Climate Strategy and Action Plan sets out how we will apply a 'green lens' to all our decision-making - embedding the climate and green agenda into all our policy-making and considering environmental impacts and opportunities to improve the environment. Doing so provides positive examples for businesses, residents, and our peer local authorities, as we encourage them to follow our lead and do what they can to reduce their environmental impact.

We are doing more on the ground to protect and increase biodiversity within our parks and open spaces. Recently this has seen the promotion of our alternative land management initiative, which has seen us work with Town and Parish councils to identify 231 individual plots that are currently the most suitable areas within the district to change the way we manage them to enable more plants, insects, birds and mammals to flourish.

Through our partnership with Groundworks, we have supported the Green Recovery Project, which sees job-seekers work as part of a small team and develop their skills in conservation, grounds maintenance and practical horticulture whilst creating new habitats and improving biodiversity.

Enhancing employment opportunities and supporting businesses

To enhance employment opportunities and support businesses, we have looked to promote Huntingdonshire as a location for investment in high-tech, highly-skilled and green economic opportunities and jobs.

This has seen us launch the new 'Invest in Huntingdonshire' website and 'Made in Huntingdonshire' campaign to establish an inward investment baseline. We are now working with partners to promote business support, business start-up programmes, and grant schemes as part of the UK Shared Prosperity initiative.

We also continue to work with partners to support the provision of career advice and technical and vocational learning, including apprenticeships and boosting our English as a Second Language provision in our district. Our Economic Development Team has been focussing on ensuring businesses participate in the Local Skills Implementation consultation for future provision.

Supporting the provision of high-speed broadband and mobile phone coverage across the district is necessary, and we have worked with Connected Cambridgeshire to continue improving connectivity across the community.

Supporting the needs of residents

A year ago, we stated our commitment to ensuring that Huntingdonshire residents have the highest possible quality of life and the role that good employment, health and social connection play within that. This came at a time when residents faced a growing affordability challenge, which sadly continues today.

However, at the end of March 2023, Housing Benefit of £24.7m and Council Tax Support of £7.3m had been paid to help with rental and Council Tax costs, respectively. A further £230k had been paid to assist with rental costs via Discretionary Housing Payments. This is higher than the £212k we reported for 2021/22 due to more government funding being allocated.

In addition to our support through housing benefits and council tax support, our work over the last year has also seen us support the Energy Bills Rebate Scheme, which closed at the end of November with circa £9.5m paid to over 61,000 households in the district to assist with the rise in utility bills.

The Resident Advice and Information Team helped residents in need to secure a total of £78,534 in vouchers from the Household Support Fund, more than double the £35,860 awarded in the previous year.

Our One Leisure teams continue to offer services that support people’s physical and mental health. Last year, we had 1,299,902 One Leisure admissions and around 48,500 attendances at our Lifestyles programmes last year.

The efforts of our One Leisure Direct Team to support the Concessionary Membership Scheme have seen an 88% increase in demand following the inclusion of a flyer in the annual Council Tax billing mailout. The scheme allows individuals who meet the eligibility criteria to access One Leisure Facilities at a discounted rate at certain times. Over 1,000 individuals now benefit from this scheme, many of whom had never used the facilities.

Improving the housing situation

As we look to improve the housing situation across the district, we said we would update the Local Plan and other relevant policies. This hefty work got underway at the start of this year, and several consultations with residents, businesses and other stakeholders have already taken place, including for the Call for Sites and Issues Papers.

While developing a new Local Plan will go on over many years, this last year, we have seen 456 new affordable homes delivered. This exceeds the number recorded in 2021/22 (311) and is the highest number reported for this measure in the last ten years. The previous maximum was 440 delivered in 2019/20.

Our Resident Advice and Housing teams have continued to support people who have fallen on hard times, prevented 459 people from becoming homeless, and helped 751 households become housed through the housing register.

We have also seen two Community Infrastructure Levy funding rounds held this financial year. A total of £7,215,929.20 was allocated through the funding rounds, including £750,000 to support the new headquarters of MAGPAS at Alconbury Weald.

Strengthening our communities

To strengthen our communities, we have worked with accredited community organisations to ensure our services fulfil local needs and are delivered in the way that best builds community and resident capacity.

Our Health Inequalities project, which saw us receive £250,000 from the Integrated Care System, has looked to boost physical activity in the least active groups by working with the community organisations that lead and commission specific projects for their communities. This project has been critical in our longer-term response recognising the link between physical health and income, and the connection between physical activity and mental health, a crucial barrier to employment and skills for some in our communities.

From strength and balance to yoga, art socials, activity days and after-school clubs - not forgetting the hobby hubs and men's sheds. We have funded 55 new community-based prevention activities with over 1,000 attendances.

Over the coming year, we will build upon this community engagement model as we progress our 2023/2024 project, which will generate evidence-based interventions for those at risk of frailty and cardiovascular disease.

We have also partnered to provide more excellent leisure and health opportunities to enable more people to be more active more often. In addition to the stellar increase in concessionary One Leisure memberships, we have worked with at least 75 organisations throughout 2022/23 across sports and physical activity. Our work this year has also seen St Neots Primary Care Network commission services from Active Lifestyles for the first time. Many of the Recognised Organisations funded through the Health Inequalities project have commissioned both the sports and health teams to deliver work requested by their communities in their consultations.

In recognition of the impacts of the cost-of-living crisis on some residents, the Community Chest fund launched an application process for Warm Hubs in October 2022. Applications were welcomed from voluntary and community groups and town and parish councils who wished to provide a safe, warm space to residents across the district who may have been struggling to afford to stay warm at home. In total, £7,170 was awarded to warm spaces applicants between October and March.

We have also supported those Ukrainian refugees who have moved to the district through the Homes for Ukraine scheme. With fewer people arriving from Ukraine, our attention has turned to helping these guests move into their own privately rented accommodation. We have appointed a housing officer to support hosts and guests and help ensure that suitable and affordable properties can be found.

Our work to strengthen communities has also seen us enable and support community planning by advising towns and parish councils seeking to develop or update Neighbourhood Plans. The Great Gransden Neighbourhood Plan was made at Full Council in March. The Giddings, Hamerton and Winwick have commenced preparing a joint neighbourhood plan, and the Stukeleys also prepared their neighbourhood plan, with a referendum taking place on 8 June.

Looking ahead

What we have achieved over the last 12 months provides us with a solid foundation on which to build.
In March, we agreed on a new Corporate Plan, which informs everything we do as we refocus our vision, review our priorities and work with staff, residents, partners, communities and businesses to lead Huntingdonshire into the future with confidence.

The Corporate Plan outlines our three key priorities:

  • improving the quality of life for local people

  • creating a better Huntingdonshire for future generations

  • delivering good quality, high value-for-money services with reasonable control and compliance with statutory obligations.

The first two priorities are each split into three outcomes. For the 'Improving quality of life' for local people's priorities, these are:

  • improving the happiness and well-being of residents

  • keeping people out of a crisis

  • helping people in crisis.

And for the 'Creating a better Huntingdonshire for future generations' priority, our outcome statements are:

  • improving housing

  • forward-thinking economic growth

  • lowering our carbon emissions.

'Working together' continues to be an overarching principle for us as a council as we look to achieve these priorities. We cannot go it alone. The challenges we face can only be solved through working collaboratively; the responsibility is not the council's alone.

To that end, Do, Enable, Influence is a crucial phrase for us as the Corporate Plan calls on the council to play more of an enabling role, to make more use of partnership working and to empower people to reduce demand for traditional public services. Our role is to help residents and businesses thrive. Only by working with people can we ensure that Huntingdonshire is a place where people can have a good life and take advantage of the opportunities that benefit them.

Central to this is communicating regularly with residents, meaningfully engaging with them in the broadest possible aspects of our work and listening and responding to concerns in shaping policies and priorities.

Over the last 12 months, we have sought a range of views on topics including the development of our budget principles, an understanding of the services residents value, our Climate Strategy, our Electric Vehicle Charging Strategy, our Local Plan, and the Huntingdonshire Futures Place Strategy, which I will come on to more in a moment.

In addition to the views of our residents, we will continue to draw on insights from councillors of all political persuasions and work together to ensure that the council provides good services and good value.

We will continue to work constructively with the Cambridgeshire & Peterborough Combined Authority, Cambridgeshire County Council, and colleagues in health. Over the last year, we have grown positive and productive relationships with local town and parish councils, other public bodies, business partners and the third sector. Investment in these critical relationships will continue as we stay as close to our communities as possible.

I mentioned the Place Strategy and, over the last year, we undertook more engagement on this programme of work than any other as we brought together the views of residents, including our young people, businesses, stakeholders and partners to develop Huntingdonshire Futures, which creates a shared vision and a plan of goals and actions for Huntingdonshire up to 2050. The views and feedback we received in the development of this strategy will also be used to inform other programmes of work.

By investing time and developing this shared strategy with our stakeholders and partners, who will continue to champion or lead on parts of it, we can influence better outcomes for our residents and communities to ensure that Huntingdonshire remains one of the best places to live in the country.

Over the summer, we will bring stakeholders back together to bring the strategy to life. As part of this, we will continue to search for our 'guiding lights' - examples from other parts of the country or abroad that may inspire us to adopt similar initiatives. These initiatives, along with our partners and stakeholders, will challenge our existing way of thinking and encourage us to achieve better outcomes for Huntingdonshire.

I am proud of all that has been achieved over the last year as we continue to deliver a greener, fairer Huntingdonshire for all.

Thank you.

Cllr Sarah Conboy
Executive Leader, Huntingdonshire District Council