County Council elections are being held on June 4. (Have you started canvassing yet?) This site will provide full coverage on the messages Conservatives will be fighting on. We begin with Cllr Tim Stoddard, the Conservative leader of Cumbria County Council.
The key risk to manage for any administration in the next few years is that of financial control in an increasingly difficult economic climate. Difficult decisions will need to be taken about how to keep delivering services in line with the level of need whilst managing the budget. Revenue income is being threatened, default on charge payment will increase, cost pressures will inexorably rise and demands for improved quality will never abate. I strongly believe that we must be honest and forthright with the electorate about this. It is too easy to patronise and say that it will all turn out well in the end, but this will only happen if there is a clear vision about acceptable tolerances in budgets. For example we must control prudential borrowing and resolve long standing personnel matters on equal pay and single status. Council tax must be set in context with the real economy of the area.
In Cumbria we have a two tier authority system of local government. This brings with it many opportunities. We are committed to share our services with the other District, City and Borough councils in the county wherever we can. Some progress has already been made, but there is a huge opportunity for further efficiencies. This will require brave and innovative thinking, as well as a spirit of collaboration and working for the benefit of communities.
Nuclear new build power stations are headline news at present. In Cumbria, expressions of interest have been submitted and accepted for three sites by commercial operators. These are at Sellafield, Braystones and Kirksanton. Let me say that we welcome this interest and, whilst it is early in the process, we have to recognise that we have a wealth of skill and experience in West Cumbria in the nuclear sector. These skills must not be lost, and we will be working to ensure that nuclear power plays its proper part in energy production in the west of the County, alongside other forms of power generation. For example; Cumbria already has energy production schemes that include wind, bio-digesters, bio-fuel, hydro-electric, solar and photovoltaic methods of energy production. This diversity of energy production places Cumbria in the vanguard of securing our future energy supplies, and the related policy issues that are needed.
Across the country, probably the most widespread complaint is that local highways are in desperate need of attention. This is a continual source of friction locally. And indeed Cumbria has suffered from the ‘floor damping’ formula applied to our revenue grant. Last financial year £15m was sliced from our budget settlement, this year a further £14m will be sliced. Small beer for some councils I recognise, but really significant here. This skimming comes on top of settlements, which for the past seven years have stripped tens of millions of pounds from this area of our work. This ‘salami slicing’ has created real problems for the Council. We are in effect overseeing and managing the decline of the network. Unless substantial and sustained investment becomes available, I can only predict further decline. I realise this is probably a tall order in the short term!
To partly offset this decline we have already introduced a highly popular Highway steward scheme. These provide a resource at local level to resolve relatively easy but immensely irritating problems. They have been welcomed universally in Cumbria. Accordingly, we will increase the number of these Highway Stewards when we regain control of the Council.
Cumbria is a large geographical area, the second largest county in England. Without the means to move goods around, and access areas of the county we will continue to see some parts scoring badly on the Indices of Multiple Depravation, especially in rural areas. It is a surprising fact that, although Eden district scores highly in terms of income and employment measures, it is also one of the most deprived areas in England for access to local services. This is a combination of factors. There are pockets of very low income and relatively poor public transport provision due to the large area needed to be covered and the sparsity of population. Public transport issues are being improved by investment in ‘Rural Wheels’. This scheme is an innovative use of local transport company resources to provide a ‘bespoke’ service to remote areas. Available during the week and office hours, we have introduced a service that allows people to book transport a couple of times a week so they can get to the doctors, the shops or other services.
Unemployment is increasing in all our districts. It is at the highest level now since August 2000. The largest employment sector in Cumbria is tourism. The ‘credit crunch’ may encourage more people to holiday in the UK. But tourism provides a large number of jobs which are in the main relatively low paid. We will need to focus on diversifying our employment base. It is the smaller businesses that are under the most pressure locally, especially in the retail sector. Some parts of the centres of towns and cities in Cumbria appear nigh on derelict due to these closures. Not a great advert for any place. We will look at ways to reduce the burden of Business Rates, and also invest in start up funding for smaller enterprises.
Cumbria has large areas of protected landscapes. We have the Lake District National Park, and part of the Dales National Park. We have areas of outstanding natural beauty, and many SSSIs. This means that there are conflicting pressures to deliver a meaningful housing policy with the District, City and Borough councils. We are prepared to look at investing in affordable housing where there is a local identified need. But to do this we will encourage a devolved decision making process so that there is local ownership of the decisions that need to be taken.
Care for the Elderly
Cumbria has population profile which is much older than most of the rest of the Country. This creates a pressure to provide continuing care for our elderly residents, and means we will have to focus on delivering our services in the most efficient and cost effective manner. Cumbria Care, the council owned service, needs to be remodelled to encourage people to be able to stay in their own homes with the right support, the right facilities and equipment. We will also look very closely at how we can move towards individual budgeting for a larger share of people, without incurring additional costs. It really is about the Council not abandoning the elderly.
Improving Educational attainment for all
Cumbrian educational attainment is improving rapidly. But there is still a lot to do to ensure that this improvement is spread equally across the County. We are coming to the end of a review of secondary education. This has seen significant investment in Academies in Cumbria. The accelerated programme has been challenging and not without its problems. But we remain convinced this was our best chance to see the investment that we needed.
We are also in the midst of a primary school review to reduce the number of excess places. This work sometimes causes anxiety about small local schools, but we have worked with the schools to reassure parents that there will be a local school within reach of their home.
We are determined to place more decision making at the local level. We already have a well developed Neighbourhood Forum system across the County, as well as local committees. We want to develop this further so that communities can feel properly engaged in the decisions that affect them. We intend to invest further in the grants that the council makes available for very small local schemes to improve a locality.
We are just at the point of signing a deal for the next 25 years with a contractor to produce a low grade fuel from our household waste. This will reduce significantly the household waste that ends up in landfill. It has been a long and tortuous negotiation. But we are nearly there. We see the drive to recycle as part of a continuum of activities that will encourage people to improve the cleanliness of their streets. Again it is the local input and local solutions that will deliver improvements.