By Roger Truelove (Leader of Swale Borough Council)
The 5-party coalition has now been in control of Swale Borough Council for just over 18 months and has had time to establish its policy priorities.
For half of that time, however, the Council has been diverted from its local policies by the arrival of a World Viral pandemic which for a period of time has seen Swale being widely bruited as the most infected in England, a distinction that in some quarters of the media has been seen as notoriety.
During the enduring presence of Covid restrictions, the Council has concentrated on taking rough sleepers off the streets, supporting vulnerable people in the community, distributing Government grants to business and working with others to monitor compliance with the public health guidance on mask wearing and social distancing.
We have also had to do without a Chief Executive to manage the administration, though I am pleased to say Larissa Reed will be joining us in January.
That is not to say that progress has not been made on the agenda agreed by the coalition parties when they first took office.
The Coalition is determined to shift priorities on housing away from speculative higher cost housing development towards providing more affordable housing for local people. We said we expected the market and the planning system to provide more affordable housing, which includes housing for purchase within the means of more local, and especially young, people, shared ownership and housing for affordable rents and social housing rents. This is happening but we also said where the market failed to meet need, we would intervene. We have now established a Local Housing Company in which the Council will be the sole shareholder and which we intend can meet local need more thoroughly over future decades. The Cabinet Member delivering on this is Faversham Liberal Democrat, Ben Martin.
We are making significant strides towards bringing the Council closer to those organisations that support people most in need in the Borough. We are also considering the impact of Swale policies and delivery on the Health and Well Being of local residents. This involves cross portfolio work between Community and Health members. Hannah Perkin (Liberal Democrat) is Deputy Cabinet member for Health and Julian Saunders(Labour) Deputy for Community. Julian has played a lead role in our support of foodbanks.
Tim Valentine (Green) and Eddie Thomas ( Liberal Democrat) are the Cabinet and Deputy Cabinet members for Environment and have established progressive policies for tackling climate change, and are delivering on policies that are leading to improvements to open spaces, tree planting, air pollution mitigation, electric car mobility.
The Coalition is concerned about the high proportion of people in Swale who have to live on low incomes, from jobs that are often temporary and unreliable. The Cabinet member for Economic Improvement has produced a policy direction that tackles the need for improved skills and opportunities in the Borough.
The Coalition has achieved one of its objectives by ending the role that the Spirit of Sittingbourne consortium has played in Sittingbourne regeneration. We believe that has taken a potential financial burden off the Swale community and given us scope to look at all of our town centres in a more realistic way.
The Council has changed and will change its decision making procedures to involve more elected members and members of the community. Area Committees have started work and Cabinet Committees are due to be in place in the next civic year.
The Council inevitably has to run a tight revenue budget after years of low funding for Councils. The basic revenue budget leaves little room for expansion but we have inherited reserve funds that should have been used before but have just accumulated within the Council.
We first of all established a Special Projects fund, of one-off spends, to improve the general facilities around the Borough.
Faversham has already had £500K granted through a number of projects such as car park refurbishment, West Faversham Community centre, St Ann’s Footbridge, Faversham Pools, Harty Ferry Artesian well, public parks, and outreach work on fuel poverty. Special project funds have also been allocated to the Eastern Area Committee which includes Councillors from Faversham and the area around.
We have also established a fund for town centre improvements, not grandiose unsustainable projects, but ways of improving our town centres.
And we have set up an Improvement and Resilience fund to help with recovery post Covid, and in particular to focus on those areas of greatest deprivation within the Borough.