Cllr James Halden is the Cabinet Member for Education and Health on Thurrock Council
In 2016, I became Cabinet Member for Education and Health on Thurrock Council when we finally won power. With a few exceptions, Thurrock had been Labour dominated for most of its history.
We took office with 18 Councillors – versus 17 UKIP and 14 Labour. We were, to the best of our knowledge, the smallest minority administration on a top tier unitary council in the nation. Our opposition included a UKIP Councillor who was also a MEP with a large compliment of campaigning staff, and a Labour Group which welcomed Corbyn down to campaign in Thurrock more often than any national leader in modern history.
Labour’s Administration ran the council into the ground, intentionally making front line cuts to justify their own political narrative about Government “Austerity”. They left us with a £30m black hole, and a council which justified little action on any issue from environment to education on the basis of “there is no money”.
We knew job one was cultural change; folk needed to know it was a new and Conservative management.
We quickly launched our “clean it, cut it, fill it” scheme to improve the standard of the environment and roads. We invested just £1m in our first year, but did so well in terms of turning around a downbeat culture and low standards that within 2 years we had to bring in “Keep Britain Tidy” to set even more rigorous KPI’s for us to be stretched to hit. Better services were not predicated on massive cash injections.
Indeed, we set a very Conservative approach to budgeting. We decided to forgo the extra one per cent Council Tax increase HMT allowed in 2018 (only five per cent of councils did this), and froze tax totally in 2019 (less than five per cent of councils did this). This was while increasing reserves by almost 40 per cent. Our financial turnaround was based on a bold investment strategy, although one where we were clear we would not indulge in “municipal socialism” by buying businesses to run them. By setting the tone of low taxes, the council had to be optimistic and bold – this approach worked a lot better than Labour’s approach of putting up their “graph of doom” at the start of cabinet meetings showing our reducing RSG.
Finally, we put “better services, fewer buildings” at the heart of decision making. I endured contrived protests over closing a set of children centres, and wanting to move away from an aging hospital to new medical centres. The opposition cried “cuts” – we yelled back “reform”. With fewer disjointed children centres, we were able to increase engagement by ten per cent. And moving away from an outdated hospital we worked with partners to outline an ambitious plan of circa £80m for some of the most modern “Integrated Medical Centres” anywhere.
In 2018 we returned to the polls and we were re-elected with a larger grouping, having turned a £30m deficit into surpluses, and won national awards for meaningful service reform from social care to transport.
Let me now turn to the original premise of this article, mental health reform.
We hosted a mental health summit with hundreds of partners to walk them though the issues we saw. When you get a room of people debating your statistics is the moment you capture their imagination. From here I formed a working group with some of our amazing school leaders and health partners to scope a co-commissioned plan.
There was little point in just flooding the system with more cash for acute care – we needed more capacity within a holistic system to prevent the rise of issues early. We were able to contribute the bulk of £1m to pay for a new team to work with all schools to spread tested practices to support good mental wellbeing.
From here, we started to focus on higher standards within primary care. Our GP standards card, launched by myself and our great CCG in 2016, focused on certain outcomes like COPD and how we can support primary care colleagues to increase action to identify and treat. My team is now scoping an extra £500,000 investment into work such as working with primary care to ensure that patients are not simply stuck on pharmacology and instead are getting correct early intervention.
This funding is not just about budgets, it was about our values as compassionate Conservatives.
I am thrilled Thurrock has been noticed nationally for this work and ConHome has given me the opportunity to write a few words in this subject.
As a prologue to the above, it’s worth noting how the public responded. Our administration faced the polls in May 2019 where nationally we saw the loss of over 1,000 colleagues in a historically terrible night. But in Thurrock, we held firm, losing just one seat but actually winning the popular vote for the first time since 2004.
We proved conservative leadership can win; unflinching in the face of protest, putting the public and taxpayer first, and being bold about higher ambitions for public services for everyone.