Changing our Council's approach: community and climate come first
This article, by Councillor Robin Bennett, Leader of South Oxfordshire Council's Green Group - where the Greens share power with the Lib Dems - was published in GreenWorld on 29th March 2022
South Oxfordshire is a large rural district stretching from Oxford to Henley and the edge of Reading, taking in the market towns of Wallingford and Thame and the much-expanded railway town of Didcot – now designated a ‘Garden Town’. Much of South Oxfordshire is wealthy and affluent, but it also has real pockets of deprivation and challenges of inequality; I see this in my own ward, which contains both opulent manor houses and draughty social housing, in some cases with five children sharing one bedroom. The district is also under immense development pressure with high housing targets affecting the rural character of our area and its infrastructure.
The Conservatives kept council tax artificially low for years, reducing the council’s reserves – gained from the previous sale of its housing stock to a housing association – by millions of pounds per year. They had also outsourced many core services. While the promised ‘savings’ looked good on paper, they soon evaporated and stripped the council’s internal capacity and expertise. So, while we could take some quick steps to bring Green policies into the council, there was a lot to unpick and fix first. We also picked a major planning fight with Robert Jenrick, but that’s another story.
All residents deserve warm homes, good quality community facilities, accessible parks and green spaces, as well as a stable climate and thriving natural world around them. As a council, we don’t have all the tools we need to provide these things, but we do have some, and it’s right to use them to challenge some of these inequalities that exist within our district.
In late 2020, we created a member-led ‘corporate plan’, a key strategic document establishing the core projects and principles the council would work on for the next four years across all departments. This work was led by Green councillor and cabinet member for Corporate Services and Policy Andrea Powell. We are now into year two of this plan, which is monitored on a quarterly basis with published performance reports. We have also just signed off the council’s Climate Action Plan, in which Green councillor Sam Casey-Rerhaye has played a key role as chair of the Climate and Ecological Emergencies Committee.
Last month we delivered a budget representing a step-change in how the council invests in our communities and collective priorities. If our first budget responded to the council’s poor financial position, and the second to the existential challenges of the pandemic, this third budget is the first fully realised expression of the projects in our corporate plan.
Our administration’s approach to bringing services back in house is a clear reversal of our Conservative predecessors’ policy, and has put us in a much stronger position both financially and practically. As a result, Heads of Service can manage costs more effectively, improving the long-term position and freeing up £500,000 for immediate additional investment. We have split these funds between three of our key priorities: Protect and Enhance Nature, Taking Action on Climate Change, and Community Wellbeing.
This will enable us, for example, to accelerate activity to support the retrofit of homes and development of green construction skills, run green business fairs in towns, and support car-sharing clubs.
Another Green councillor, Peter Dragonetti, is one of our Tree Champions. We are supporting tree and hedge planting by towns and parishes, including on council-owned land, and have just approved planting by community groups on two substantial council-owned sites in Wallingford.
There’s also funding to invest in access to green spaces and our rivers. Green councillor Jo Robb is the council’s River Thames Champion, and has campaigned to raise awareness and take action on sewage pollution in our river, which runs 47 miles along the length of the district.
We have also allocated funds to renovate our much-needed public toilets and support community litter picks and children’s activities.
As well as bringing services in house, we’re saving money by working on a joint local plan with our neighbouring Vale of the White Horse district. We are planning to move out of expensive rented offices (an arson attack destroyed our council offices in 2015), by making a substantial investment in the centre of Didcot Garden Town for a new civic building. We’re buying houses to use as temporary accommodation rather than paying for hotels.
We know these are tough financial times for many of our residents. Although South Oxfordshire has one of the lowest levels of council tax of any shire district, it’s vital that we deploy all the funding we can access, especially to support facilities used by our residents, whatever their income level. By introducing new action and policies on developer funding contributions, we have improved the council’s ability to spend them more quickly, and as a result, we are able to make substantial investments. In this budget, we have released nearly £2 million to support community leisure and wellbeing facilities, as well as in some cases supporting a specific need, such as improved access to the Thames for wheelchair users.
Also included are some innovative ideas such as a partnership project with Trust for Oxfordshire’s Environment, allowing local organisations to bid for a share of £50,000 for local nature projects, and £25,000 for a pilot site for a Tiny Forest.
In my role as cabinet member for development and regeneration, I am leading on a £5 million investment over two years, using affordable housing funds from developers to enable the council to purchase and invest in its own council housing, another vital step toward reinstating the council as a provider of housing for those most in need. This follows major commitments last year to Henley and District Housing Trust and for our own Didcot Broadway development of new low-carbon council housing.
Having a group of Green councillors has made a clear and positive difference to these plans. Alongside our Lib Dem partners, with welcome support from other groups on the council, we are showing that there’s a different way to do things, putting communities, climate and nature first, while also improving the council’s long term financial resilience.