Cllr Bradley Thomas is the Leader of Wychavon District Council.
The landscape that is Local Government finance has become increasingly challenged in recent years following reductions in Revenue Support Grant funding from central government and, for County and Unitary authorities, an increasing adult social care burden.
The impact of these pressures plus increasing and ageing populations adding further demand to services has resulted in most councils looking towards other forms of funding notably through increasing their Council Tax.
With an already low average band-D precept of just £120.08, the authority that I lead, Wychavon District Council in Worcestershire, is in an almost unique position having announced our second successive Council Tax freeze without cutting services – something almost unheard of in a year in which 97 per cent of councils have increased the burden on the local taxpayer.
However, our fortunate financial circumstances are not accidental. Successive Conservative administrations at Wychavon have governed whilst being true to the solid Conservative principle of fiscal responsibility.
Wychavon District Council operates under the Executive Board Model – effectively the Cabinet System – but functioning in the style of a corporate board to better reflect the spirit of entrepreneurship and agility in decision making to achieve our strategic objectives and deliver for our residents.
Our current “Grow, Save, Charge” business plan is a deliberate approach to integrating our corporate strategy, finances and political objectives into a consolidated plan which enables Wychavon to be operated as a business:
Growing – by bringing in new funding and the council working to stimulate the local economy
Saving – by reducing our costs where possible.
Charging – raising income by charging for certain valued services and selling our services and resources to other organisations.
This approach in relation to growing the council’s income has been so successful that we’ve had to take no significant decision on cutting services or charging for additional services. For example, car parking charges have been frozen for the last eight consecutive years and we have recently awarded a new waste contract which will deliver £6 million of savings over ten years versus the previous contract.
It’s a consequence of strong fiscal management that Wychavon District Council has a near balanced budget for 2019/20 and the next four years beyond.
Historically we have minimised the exposure to future council taxpayers and haven’t borrowed money to fund capital investments or other economic spending in the district and since 2015 we’ve invested £22.6 million delivering a raft of economic and social investments across Evesham, Droitwich and Pershore.
Our investment strategy is the right one for the district – we only invest in capital projects based within the geography of the district and which, in addition to a financial return on investment to the council, deliver an economic or social return to the district as a whole.
For example, in November 2018 we opened a new Waitrose store in Evesham which was built by and is owned by Wychavon District Council. This is a real win-win investment for both the Council and the community. Wychavon as a corporate entity has a tangible real estate asset on its balance sheet and receives a five per cent annual return on investment whilst a top-tier tenant has moved into a distressed town centre and is contributing towards improving the economic vitality of Evesham overall.
The horizon presents many challenges which have the potential to significantly alter local government finance even further – the loss of New Homes Bonus, the Spending Review, Fair Funding Review and reform of the Business Rates Retention Scheme – but our prudent financial planning ensures that our exposure to risk is minimised.
Our strong, financial status means that under my leadership Wychavon will continue to support our political objectives of People, Place and Prosperity – and can afford to do so with vigour and ambition which tackle the real local issues that affect the community.
It’s easy in local government to be distracted by economic vitality and view other issues as peripheral, but that’s certainly not the case at Wychavon with a commitment of a further £200,000 of funding to tackling social mobility and improving the life chances of the most vulnerable local children at the same time as spending £200,000 to improve our already high-quality Green Flag parks.
Over the next three years £12 million of our New Homes Bonus income is ring-fenced for further investments that will spur economic growth across the district whilst a further £1 million per year for the next three years is to be spent on community-led legacy projects – a commitment the scale of which is almost unprecedented from a district council in such challenging and austere times.
As is the case up and down the country our town centres face noticeable challenges and due to consistently strong Conservative governance and financial prudence we are able to afford £150,000 of funding to create a masterplan for Droitwich, Evesham and Pershore town centres to meet the emerging challenges of town centre viability in a rapidly changing retail environment.
Whilst our council tax freeze is a welcome respite for local taxpayers at a time where most other precepting bodies are increasing the financial burden, council tax should be seen as one distinct element of a wider business planning model aligned to delivering Conservative political objectives which improve the quality of life for all residents.