Cllr Graham Jones is the Leader of West Berkshire Council.
This electoral term has been challenging and rewarding for West Berkshire in equal measure.
Our budget has fallen since 2015 from £124 million to £117 million, whereas the cost of our adult social care alone rose from £47.5 million to £58 million in the same period. This doesn’t make for comfortable reading and we have had to make some really difficult choices about where we spend and where we save. As Council Leader, making these tough decisions is what the past few years have been about.
Unlike our opposition, we are being honest with residents and explaining to them that managing our budget well is the right thing to do. You only have to look at our neighbours in Labour controlled Reading to see the consequences of financial mismanagement.
Achievements have as much to do with ambition as they have to do with money.
We are transforming the way services are delivered. A big success in this regard has been our reorganisation of the library service. We now have over 200 volunteers working in eight libraries. This is an extraordinary achievement.
We moved our Children’s Services from being rated ‘inadequate’ by Ofsted to ‘good’ in the space of two years. This two grade jump was unprecedented and shows our commitment to safeguarding our most vulnerable.
We made a bold choice about how we deliver superfast broadband to even the most remote parts of the area. This has paid off in spades. We will have achieved full coverage by 2020 and our excellent connectivity has been widely covered in the national press.
We have established a Corporate Programme, which oversees savings and income generation for the Council. We have created an environment where our officers are encouraged to be innovative; this has successfully identified significant savings in two years.
Alongside the LEP, the Berkshire authorities bid for the business rate retention pilot. No longer are we being penalised for our success. Instead, we will retain more money here for infrastructure projects and services that matter to our residents. There is no word yet on whether our pilot will be extended but rest assured that we will lobby for this at every opportunity.
In early 2017, we lost our leader, Roger Croft, in tragic circumstances. Roger was ambitious for West Berkshire and recognised that effective economic development was key to our future success.
As we approach our local elections, we are shifting our focus towards his aspiration for the district: we want to show that we are open for business. It isn’t a difficult sell.
Our economy is incredibly strong. We have the best rural broadband in the country. Newbury is the ‘top tech town’ in the UK. We have over 7,000 small and medium sized businesses. We have excellent, and improving, transport links to Heathrow, Central London and beyond. We are the gateway to the south east, sitting, as we do, at the crossroads of the M4 and the A34.
That’s quite a list. And it isn’t even the half of it.
Next year residents of West Berkshire have a clear choice next year. They can choose a pitiful opposition mired in mushy populism and who shirk hard decisions. Or they can choose us. A decisive, experienced team who knows exactly how much potential West Berkshire has and is unafraid to help deliver it.
No doubt the years to 2023 will have their own challenges and rewards, but I am confident that we are well-prepared.