Cllr Charles Roberts is the Leader of East Cambridgeshire District Council and the Deputy Mayor of Cambridgeshire and Peterborough Combined Authority.
Conservatives in local government have compelling stories to tell about delivering for the people they serve. In East Cambridgeshire, where I lead the Council, our success stems from Conservative principles which we apply to all aspects of our work. We must not let these local success stories be drowned out by national issues as we head into the May local elections.
For the last six years, the Conservative majorities on East Cambridgeshire District Council have frozen Council Tax – a tax cut in real terms. This has not stopped us from delivering on community priorities, protecting key services nor from balancing our budget with no financial sleight of hand. The fact that Central Government is also engaged in belt-tightening should be no excuse for us to pass on costs to local people. This record stands in stark contrast to that of our main opposition in East Cambridgeshire, the Liberal Democrats. When they were at the helm, council tax rose by 60.1 per cent.
We have kept money in people’s pockets by instilling a core set of principles which guide all aspects of the Council’s work and then by sticking to them. First among them is our mantra that raising taxes is always a last resort, never the first resort. This not only applies to council tax but to all charges and fees over which the Council has control because if the government takes it, it’s a tax.
For example, East Cambridgeshire District Council has invested in increased car parking capacity for our mainline railway stations where demand for it has been high. The money injected by Council has given it a near-monopoly position on commuter parking. When they have found themselves in similar positions, too many Liberal Democrat and Labour controlled authorities have raised charges and treated parking like a cash cow. But rather than squeezing hard-working people to generate revenue, we have held charges at the level needed only to cover the cost of the Council’s investment. Not only is the right thing to do from a public service point of view, but we understand that facilitating access to, and growth in, the local economy will allow us to reap greater rewards in the long run. We have already seen businesses in Ely benefit from a rise in footfall thanks to the free parking available for shoppers in the City Centre.
Refusing to increase prices just because we can is central to the Council’s ‘commercial’ outlook. Instead, we look for opportunities to generate revenue by adding real value to the experiences of businesses and customers. That’s why, in 2016, we incorporated the East Cambs Trading Company an in-house entity. The Commercial Services Division of the Company, amongst other initiatives, runs a profitable market in Ely Town Centre on Thursdays and Saturdays. The market is a focal point for the community which promotes employment and enhances consumer choice.
Also operating under the Trading Company is its Property and Community Housing Division which performed contracts awarded by the Council to develop high-quality and design-led housing of all tenures, generating a profit on the investments we made. This mission included accelerating the delivery of Community Land Trusts, innovative community-led housing which prioritises the needs of local people who cannot otherwise afford to enter the market. It cannot be the case that the workers who make up the backbone of our economy are locked out from sharing in our area’s success when it comes to having a secure and pleasant place to call home.
Running a Council like a responsible business means not only focusing on process but also on the structure of our organisation. Frugality is a value which must be embraced by the institution itself. Under Conservative leadership, the number of highly-paid Directors at the Council has been reduced from nine to three. This leaner, flatter management structure has also made space for young officers with new ideas to make greater contributions to the running of the organisation. Our incentive structure for staff is now based on performance rather than rising up opaque hierarchies. As a result, many members of staff are enthusiastically buying into our clearly defined corporate objectives. There is now fresh air where there was once a stuffy culture of big pay cheques, ducking responsibility, and unthinkingly passing on-costs onto the taxpayer – elected members shared that culture.
We politicians are not exempt from the necessity to streamline how we work. Following a review by the Local Government Boundary Commission, the number of councillors sitting on East Cambridgeshire District Council will drop from 39 to 28 as of May 2019. I welcome the outcome of the review as we pursue the correct balance between efficiency and good democratic oversight.
Our aim should be to run local governments which cost as little as possible but deliver as much as possible. To do that we must put grassroots Conservative values like taxation as last resort, a commercial outlook and a belief in local people at the heart of our local agendas. With our proven track record of making this work, there’s no reason why the country shouldn’t be interested in what we have to say.