Cllr Paul James is the Leader of Gloucester City Council.
This year’s local elections nationally were pretty disastrous by any standards. We were fortunate not to face the ballot box in Gloucester this year, but we are already preparing for our electoral test in 2020. From my reading, there were some clear lessons from May’s results – and not just that we need to sort out Brexit! Those councils where there is clear leadership, a sense of purpose, and a track record of delivery – and where they campaigned strongly and effectively – managed to hold back the national tide. South Gloucestershire and Swindon are two good examples local to us.
We hope by next year the national backdrop, with a new Leader and Brexit resolved, will be more positive, but in these turbulent times, we cannot rely on this. We have now been the Administration on Gloucester City Council for 15 years – initially as a minority administration, but more recently as a majority. Despite being in control for this long, we have no shortage of ideas on what we still want to achieve, and our next manifesto will be full of bold new policies.
Every council and the area it serves is different. For some places, a low council tax, running a tight ship, emptying the bins, and keeping the streets clean is enough to secure electoral success. In Gloucester and many other places, it isn’t. There is a lot to do in our community leadership, and place-shaping roles and a more active approach is required.
We are very proud of the regeneration which has taken place in Gloucester over the last 15 years, with almost £1 billion of investment attracted to what is a relatively small city. But none of it comes easily, and there is still a great deal to do. High costs, such as archaeology and decontamination, and relatively low property values sometimes means that schemes can struggle with viability without public sector intervention. Our approach, including using the Council’s assets and the strength of its covenant, has been recognised with several awards this year – including Local Authority of the Year in the South West Property Awards and winner of the Innovation in Property and Asset Management category in the MJ Awards. Our striking new bus station/transport hub, funded with the help of Government, has also been widely praised, including by the RICS.
The changing world on the high street adds a new layer of complexity to our regeneration plans, but I believe we are at the forefront of repurposing our city centre to make it a community hub, not just a retail hub. The £5 million revamp of our main public space, Kings Square, which is due on site this Autumn, is at the heart of this – as are efforts to promote our unique heritage. A few weeks ago, I visited Roeselare in Belgium, which is held up as a great example of reinventing a city, and was pleased to find many of the actions they are recommending – like free wifi, and not charging cafes for tables and chairs on the highway – we are already doing.
Housing, as in many places, is a big issue for us. We are keen to deliver as the need is high, but issues around viability can hold back inner-city schemes while greenfield sites move ahead – something the next Prime Minister, in my view, needs to address. There need to be incentives for building new homes. The New Homes Bonus must not continue to be eroded, and the constraints on small urban local authorities should be recognised. The obsession in some quarters of focusing on the South East needs to be replaced by a more balanced approach.
Regenerating sites and buildings is important, but we should never forget that people matter most. The relationship a council has with its communities is vital, and as a council, we have worked hard to move away from the traditional top-down style of decision-making, and adopted a strength-based approach to working with our residents on what’s important for them. Working with partners across the public and charitable sector, our co-funded “community builders” have supported residents to start park runs, knitting groups, help their neighbours, and build countless connections. Our long-term commitment to this approach over the past seven years have brought benefits to health and well-being, social isolation, community safety, and the environment. Our next step will be the establishment of a Community Interest Company to roll out the community building programme to every ward in the city.
Gloucester is also the first district council in the country to devolve budget from our streetcare contractor (Amey) to a community social enterprise to maintain their own green spaces, creating jobs for local people and fostering pride in the area.
We are dealing with homelessness too. Our rough sleeper count has declined, thanks to the active approach we have taken with our partners of engaging, supporting, and enforcing. We have also just acquired an additional 48 units of temporary accommodation to avoid sending those in most need outside of the city, which comes at a high human cost as well as financial cost.
In recent weeks, we have joined with other councils in declaring a climate emergency. This was done on a cross-party basis, but needs to be backed up with action. Putting the environment at the heart of everything we do is not only right, but it’s good politics.
The Gloucester of today isn’t what some people would view as natural Conservative territory – we have pockets of deprivation and a diverse population. But we have no no-go areas, and I believe we are the natural home for community activists. Byron Davis and Fred Ramsey, our candidates in two by-elections set to take place on 25th July, are a testament to this. Our councillors and candidates are representative of the city as a whole. I’m particularly pleased the Chairman of the local Polish Association has been selected as one of our candidates for May 2020.
We work closely with our friends at Conservative-led Gloucestershire County Council – not just sharing services, but sharing a top post (our Managing Director is also a Commissioning Director of the County Council) and now sharing offices, enabling us to market our former offices in three Dockside warehouses for regeneration.
I am proud of what we have achieved, as the Administration and our position is a world away from when I was first elected in 1996, and the Conservative Group was made up of two councillors. But we are not and cannot be complacent. Our focus never moves away from delivering for our residents. I hope this will be recognised in May next year.