As a new Joint Administration, I will begin by first placing on record my sincere thanks to both officers and Members who have supported everything that has been delivered over the last year.
We also acknowledge the work of the previous administration over the last four years and in recent times in response to the pandemic and in support of other schemes such as Homes for Ukraine and the Energy Bill Rebate initiative.
We recognise the work done to ensure that we have award-winning parks and open spaces in our district, along with good recycling rates compared to the national average. And we hope that other initiatives including the completion of the Godmanchester Mill Steps project and the investment programme for Hinchingbrooke Country Park will leave a lasting legacy.
But now we must look ahead.
Our community-focused councillors will work in cooperation towards a better, greener, fairer Huntingdonshire as we set a new strategic direction for the council.
We have inherited a difficult forward financial position that means we must continue to work hard on cost savings and ensuring value for money, with the potential of needing to make cuts on services as we find new ways to ensure we have a sustainable Medium-Term Financial Strategy - known as the MTFS.
We already know from the recent budget round that the previous administration committed to making some hugely ambitious decisions around savings for next financial year. The MTFS shows £805,000 of expenditure removed from the budget for 2023/24 however this is not the full story. We are required to run a balanced budget and in order to do so, the inherited budget shows that £2.48 million must be spent from reserves in order to do so. This is on top of the already mentioned expenditure reduction to the budget.
Unless a rabbit pops out of a hat with a grant, or central government make a huge U-turn funding-wise, we might be £3.285 million away from delivering a properly balanced budget as things stand. Our first challenge is understanding that detail and what it means for the years beyond, and then in the context of that looking at what we will do to deliver those bigger objectives.
There are going to be some very difficult decisions that we will have to make because knowing the financial position will underpin all the decisions of this council. Those savings will impact upon operational and strategic activities, and we may be forced to scale our ambitions to meet our purse. And that seems fitting seeing given the challenge our residents also face.
We have had two years of a global pandemic, we have a cost-of-living crisis, people have had a tough two years already and, sadly, according to expert predictions, they are going to have more difficult times ahead.
This brings me onto our transitional Corporate Plan for 2022/23 which will see us reflect the priorities of the Joint Administration for the remainder of the current financial year. It will help us chart a way into the policy development and budgetary options in the short-term with a programme of meaningful engagement with residents and other stakeholders which will take place over this summer and autumn. What we learn from this will shape our new Place Strategy and will inform the next Corporate Plan.
With that said, the priorities for this year are:
supporting the needs of residents
tackling climate change and caring for the environment
enhancing employment opportunities and supporting businesses
improving the housing situation
strengthening our communities.
The needs of our residents are at the forefront of our decision-making. I have touched previously on the cost-of-living crisis, and we will do all we can to support residents at this time of need. This will be a focus of our work in the immediate months of this administration.
Our response builds on the work with the Community Network and the newly accredited Good to Go organisations, as well as the emergency food network. We will continue to provide support for Ukrainians and other refugees.
In addition, we will use external funding to extend the residents advice and information team to the summer of 2023. This recognises the need for an escalation team able to take referrals from council teams and more critically partners. We note the value of a team who maintains relationships over time with those who need it and who have the time to get to the bottom of the needs of residents rather than focussing on pure service delivery.
Central to all this activity is a focus on supporting our residents holistically through the cost of living crisis, supporting them to build the capacity of residents and communities to meet immediate need and to proactively head off issues to prevent them impacting further. We recognise the inter-relationship between a series of factors which influence the life chances of residents in terms of employment, income and health, and their ability to respond to the cost of living crisis.
As part of this, we are developing a major communications campaign providing key messages to help residents to access the broad range of support available across the public, community, and commercial partners.
We will establish a financial vulnerability programme. We will develop new ways of working which removes duplication and focuses effort on root causes and longer-term solutions. We will seek to remove piecemeal and uncoordinated activity.
We will deliver a £250,000 project funded by the Clinical Commissioning Group aimed at boosting physical activity in the least active groups, led, and commissioned by the community themselves. This project will be critical in our longer-term response recognising the link between physical health and income, and also the link between physical activity and mental health, which is a key barrier to employment and skills for some in our communities.
We have earmarked just under £300,000 for a community-based skills programme, led within communities, which seeks to address barriers to gaining skills and employment and ensure the wider skills structure is informed by what is needed, and where. Not just providing the training and pathways, but systematically overcoming the barriers to access such as transport, childcare, or a range of complex issues around debt, housing and other factors.
We will work closely with Public Health and the new Integrated Care System on the Health and Wellbeing Strategy. Ensuring that there is focus on upstream prevention, and the broader determinants of health, which shape not only health demand but also the likely impacts of the cost of living crisis – such as housing, debt and employment status.
We will continue to build and refresh the community network – expanding the number of accredited organisations and ensuring that the model of community delivery embedded in Huntingdonshire’s Community Strategy continues to respond dynamically to community needs.
We will deliver a high-profile campaign around how to respond to financial and other social challenges, guiding people to the solutions and support available and building people’s capacity and resilience.
We will be working with our voluntary and community groups to ensure that we are offering support where it's needed most and are listening to our communities. Some of those who are struggling are doing so out of sight, in our small rural communities, as well as in our towns. The impending challenges of the winter months will see many struggle with heating costs and some will struggle to get to work as they can no longer afford to put petrol in their cars.
Focusing on the medium-term, beyond the immediate challenges of the cost of living crisis, we will enhance employment opportunities and support businesses by promoting Huntingdonshire as a location for high-tech, highly skilled, and green economic opportunities and jobs.
Huntingdonshire must proactively tackle the climate crisis and ecological emergency. The previous administration failed to seize the opportunity to make a public declaration in support of actions to address the Climate Emergency. We will signal our commitment to addressing the very real and important climate needs that are already impacting on Huntingdonshire as we have seen in the last two days. The Red Weather Warning is a stark reality check for any cynics who think it’s just words. We will use this to help focus public awareness on the issues and to seek to find ways in which everyone can make a greater contribution. We will design council policies that enable cutting of emissions and improve air quality. We’ll seek to increase the amount we reduce, reuse, and recycle in Huntingdonshire. We’ll seek to support active travel, local jobs, and greener homes, providing positive examples for businesses and residents.
We will take more opportunities to support local businesses with the council's purchasing power and will focus on how we rejuvenate our economy in the wake of the pandemic, working with other partners to help those currently out of work into meaningful employment and to support local businesses to grow and create more good quality jobs.
We will work with our communities to deliver the Market Towns Programme, including the St Neots Future High Streets Fund and accelerated delivery projects along with master planning in Huntingdon, Ramsey and St Ives. We are keen to make sure those in our smaller settlements are also well represented and supported and don’t feel that the focus is only on the market towns. They are as important, and we will make every effort to address their needs and concerns.
This administration is committed to ensuring that Huntingdonshire residents have a high quality of life so we will create opportunities to join up services for the benefit of residents by working with the new Integrated Care System, other public bodies and the third sector. There are significant changes in how services are being organised by geography, with the explicit outcome to be better at delivering in a more coherent way. We will have a seat around the table and will take every opportunity to speak up for Huntingdonshire, to secure what residents need and what we aspire to.
We will continue to improve digital access to council services and develop our understanding of customer and resident needs and demands, as well as provide financial assistance to people on low incomes to pay their rent and Council Tax.
To improve the housing situation, we will begin work to update the Local Plan and other relevant policies accordingly to support the delivery of affordable homes. We will also work closely with towns and parishes to widen knowledge around the Community Infrastructure Levy and how local communities can access these funds. We will also work with local communities to deliver innovative local housing schemes to meet local need.
To strengthen our communities, we will work with the police and other partner organisations to help people feel safe where they live, and support local people take action to improve their area including through ‘seed funding' projects with community grants. We are fortunate to have vibrant communities with a flourishing voluntary sector – we’ll look at how we can support and promote a culture of self- sufficiency, built from the impressive response we saw across Huntingdonshire during the pandemic.
We will also develop, adopt, and deliver a Place Strategy that will be informed by resident and stakeholder engagement that will shape our District and the priorities of this council for years to come.
‘Working together’ will be an overarching principle for the council. Central to this is communicating regularly with residents, meaningfully engaging with them in the widest possible aspects of our work and listening and responding to concerns in shaping policies and priorities. The public wanted more transparency about the decisions being made and the current scope of projects and progress to date and we will focus on making this happen.
We will work constructively with the Cambridgeshire & Peterborough Combined Authority, Cambridgeshire County Council, and colleagues in the health sector. We will grow positive and productive relationships with local town and parish councils; as well as other public bodies, business partners and the third sector. Investment in these critical relationships will ensure that we remain as close to our communities as we can.
We will work across borders as administrations in our neighbouring authorities' decisions authorities’ decisions inevitably impact upon Huntingdonshire – we’ll seek to join up where we can and do more through this collaborative approach for the benefit of our residents.
And we will maximise all opportunities for inward investment and work with other parts of government to improve infrastructure and connectivity across the district. We are keen to see Huntingdonshire take a more proactive role in marketing all it has to offer. This will see change, but we will focus on that change bringing with it better outcomes for those who live, work, and play here.
Only eight weeks ago we were on the doorsteps talking with those who were choosing how to cast their votes. I am reminded every day that it’s the residents that we serve, not ourselves. We have 52 councillors who all care passionately about their communities. We may have differences of opinion about how we will do this, but this administration will draw on insights from councillors of all political persuasions. We will work together we can ensure that the council provides good services and good value, while considering social value as a priority.
It is by doing these things that we will create a better, greener, fairer Huntingdonshire for all.