As Leader of the Council, I gave my annual speech on 25 May 2017. In my first speech as Leader last year, I said we would put the interests of the district and its residents at the heart of everything we do and make Tandridge a vibrant place to live, work and visit. I outlined a number of key priorities for the coming year and am pleased to say that progress has been made on all of them.
But since last year I have also become more aware of the complexity, depth and breadth of work we do and the contribution we make to the health and well-being agenda.
We are all aware of the support we give Tandridge Trust in the provision of leisure facilities in Oxted and Caterham and the work of our parks team but perhaps fewer of us are aware of the hugely successful Wellbeing Prescription service, projects to tackle loneliness and isolation and the family support team, working with our most vulnerable families to help them to turn their lives around.
I want to continue this early intervention and prevention work and last year I said we will be seeking to ensure that mainstream funding is available for it. I am delighted to report that funding for the well-being prescription service has just been confirmed for the next three years.
Last week I had a very constructive meeting with the Senior Partner of the Oxted Health team who is also Vice Chair the East Surrey Clinical Commissioning group. He was supportive of our parking and regeneration plans in Oxted and we discussed the provision of Community Infrastructure Funding to support local surgeries.
However, his main issue was the difficulty in recruiting GPs and the resulting reported waiting times to get appointments. A current vacancy has not attracted one single applicant. He stated that a barrier to recruitment was the cost of housing in the area.
It says something about our “broken housing market” when even doctors can’t afford to come and live in Tandridge. Stories such as these reinforce my determination to increase the number of affordable decent homes in the district.
We are making progress, working in partnership with registered providers and by building our own council houses but we must try and do more. It is a scandal that 1,300 residents are on our housing register, of which 229 are in urgent need.
We cannot achieve our ambition for the district without maintaining a robust financial position. The recent audit report from KPMG praised the Council for its approach to financial management but we cannot afford to be complacent. It is worth reiterating that our Government Grant has fallen from £4.3m to £0.1m in the current year with a negative £0.7m planned for 2019/20.
One way in which we are seeking to address the issue is through Customer First – a radical transformation programme which will reconfigure the Council to make our services more responsive to the needs of our residents, putting more services on line where appropriate, thus freeing up staff to spend time with those residents who need us most.
A small group of us returned from Eastbourne Borough Council – now merging with Lewes District Council – enthused by the success of their project which began in 2013. Key to the success is their investment in new digital on-line technology (reducing 50 plus systems to a handful) and the redeployment of staff into new roles.
This will be a significant challenge to our hard-working staff as they adapt to new ways of working, changed management structures and a 10% to 15% reduction in staffing levels. In a ten-year period, our staffing levels will have fallen by between 20% and 25%.
We have already made significant investment in our largest town, Caterham, taking the bold step of issuing a compulsory purchase order on the Rose and Young site, working closely with the community and with experts to devise a Masterplan to regenerate the town centre.
By showing that we have confidence in the town, we have encouraged other business interests in the area and have just finished consulting with residents on plans which, I believe, will lead to a sea change in the retail and leisure offer in Caterham whilst also preserving the distinctive nature which its residents rightly value.
We are also continuing to work with our partners to develop essential flood prevention measures in Caterham and Smallfield.
In recent months, we have also been working on a similar approach with an Oxted regeneration scheme. Since 2015, I have worked hard to ensure that firm proposals are brought forward for the deconstruction of the gasholder and I am absolutely delighted that St William are here today displaying their plans for the site alongside plans to enhance the public space in the town centre, which are being devised in partnership with the Business Improvement District. This ambitious proposal to enhance the vitality of our unique town centre has my full support.
Central to the scheme is an increase in car parking capacity by around 40% and outline proposals for achieving this will be considered in the next committee cycle.
Our ambitious new approach to asset management and investment, which established a 50 million pound investment fund, taking advantage of historically low interest rates, will generate additional income to invest in services.
We will ensure that we make our own assets work for us by building affordable housing on sites where doing so makes sense, so that we can provide homes for local people when otherwise house prices would put a new home beyond their reach.
Which brings me on to the fifth and final priority for the coming year – one of the most important things we have to do is to ensure that the Local Plan for the District addresses existing housing and associated infrastructure needs and those likely to arise in the future.
Our strategic vision for the Local Plan is centred around building on existing brown field sites, such as the Gasholder, together with the consideration of a Garden Village as in my view this is the best way of protecting the distinctive character of the district and defending the green belt for future generations.
We do not think it right to adopt an alternative approach which would focus development in our urban areas, increasing density in and fundamentally changing the nature of our towns. Nor is it appropriate to adopt a scattergun to the release of Green Belt – death by a thousand cuts as it were – which could lead to a significant loss of that valuable resource, and put more pressure on our highways, schools and health facilities without delivering the infrastructure improvements we all agree the district needs.
If we are to allocate land for a new sustainable Garden Village we will insist on a greater mix of affordable housing and starter homes than the current District mix and high quality design capable of winning multiple design awards.
We will require new schools, a new health centre and significant investment in roads and highways.
We have accepted that a village of around 4,000 houses would, of course, require the release of Green Belt of around 1% but will bring the benefits I have described and would put us in a good position to defend the remaining Green Belt.
We have agreed that the five sites put forward by developers should be the subject of a separate consultation as it is incumbent upon us to afford our communities the chance to see what is being proposed and to express their views before any final recommendations are made. This consultation will take place in the late summer and early autumn and further details will be discussed at the next Planning Policy Committee meeting.
There has been a number of scare mongering stories about smaller Green Belt sites contained in the Regulation 18 sites assessment.
Let me be crystal clear – apart from the Garden Village and those sites in the Green Belt that don’t meet the needs of the Green Belt, only in the most exceptional of circumstances and where doing so would benefit the local community will I contemplate releasing high performing green belt sites for development.
Our approach means that the character of the District will be preserved and we would still have the highest proportion of Green Belt land in the country. We will fight hard to maintain this position.
Colleagues, I would like to end by commending the hard work and professionalism of all our staff who have delivered our priorities in the past year and worked with us to set out an ambitious programme for the coming year.
There is much to do and I am determined to ensure that we do not lose sight of what matters – ensuring that our communities thrive in a vibrant place, while protecting the environment we all value so much.