The Leader started his statement by explaining that Central Government were looking again at the expired legislation that allowed remote decision making, and said it should have been considered by Government before it had expired.
He referred to the introduction of Cabinet Committees which were commencing in July 2021 and said that whilst there would likely be teething problems, he hoped all members would treat this initiative in the right spirit and with intelligence so it would be a progressive change to the Council. He said the change would make the role of every Councillor more representative. The Leader said that the Committees were only advisory, but they would involve Members in a way the Cabinet-only structure did not and if after this year Council were minded to move to a full Committee system, then decisions would then be made by Members representing all parts of the Council.
The Leader was pleased to confirm that Larissa Reed had completed her probation as Chief Executive to which Members applauded.
Referring to the announcement in the Queen’s speech that there were further measures planned to diminish the role of local councils in the planning process, the Leader said that this came on top of the excessive housing target figures for the South East of England, and London, and caused intense anger from politicians of all parties and communities.
The Leader said that lockdown conditions did not end, as expected, on June 21 2021 and that this was bad news for the many entertainment and hospitality businesses in Swale who were planning around this date. He said this news was exacerbated by the need for continued financial backing without any guarantee of those finances. In particular, he drew attention to the Light Cinema investment in Sittingbourne.
The Leader said this had a great launch and it was sad that it could not immediately meet the very high level of demand. For many reasons he wanted this to succeed, not least because of the serious level of risk invested in it by the Council.
Drawing attention to the recovery, the Leader said that Swale Borough Council (SBC) had a cardinal role in achieving recovery from the pandemic and this meant support to the economy but also support for individuals and groups who had suffered in a variety of ways, from homelessness to an increase in other health conditions, not least in mental health. He said it was not just getting back to where we were but making economic improvements and reaching out. There were a range of potential resources that the Council hoped to turn to over in the next two years. The Leader said the Council had its own already dedicated funds, funds that could not, even if it wanted to, be used to sustain the base budget. There were also Government recovery funds which the Council were vigorously applying for:
The Communities Renewal Fund for £3 million, submitted on SBC’s behalf by Kent County Council (KCC) but with a steer from a panel that included the Leader, the Director of Regeneration, local business interests and our two MPs. Secondly, there was the Welcome Back fund worth over £200k which would help Swale’s local retailers. The Leader spoke about the High Street Task Force which, on the insistence of Councillor Monique Bonney and himself, would be focussing on Sheerness. He said SBC were also open to exploring with the Government and Homes England the potential of the First Homes initiative to really benefit the people in Swale.
The Leader stressed that SBC were working with urgency to make a bid for the levelling-up funding, funding that must come to a Borough such as Swale. He referred to the recent media headline which implied that SBC wished to turn their back on this and he stated that this was utterly false. The Leader explained that the reality was that there would be more than one phase to the distribution of this fund and that those initially submitted by some Councils had to be already in a finite state and able to be starting construction in the current year. He said that SBC decided:
· Not to submit a rushed half prepared bid in the very short time span allowed for the initial application because there would only be one chance; and
· most significantly, made it clear to officers, that if a rushed bid did not include a well-resourced plan for the Isle of Sheppey, then further work needed to be done, because levelling up and the Isle of Sheppey instinctively fell together.
The Leader said the previous Friday had not been a deadline, but the Government’s first funding scheme for pre-existing projects and further funding would be available for more thorough bids and SBC would work with the local MP’s to produce a valuable scheme for the people of Swale.
The Leader said SBC had several clear policy pillars for the next two years. As well as economic improvement and reaching out to the community, he advised the Rainbow Company was now incorporated and projects would begin. He said that growing support for Swale’s heritage and culture would be built on further improvements made to Swale’s public places. He added that SBC would also continue to build on its growing reputation as a leader in the climate change emergency . The Leader said he felt that this priority should not really be diluted into the wider responsibilities of the Environment Portfolio and climate emergency and air quality monitoring would be transferred from the current Environment Portfolio and new Climate Change appointments would be made: Councillor Tim Valentine, with his encyclopaedic knowledge of the subject as Cabinet member and Councillor Benjamin A Martin as Deputy.
In response, the Leader of the opposition expressed his sympathy to the difficulties faced by businesses and the homeless during lockdown. He said it was not possible to keep businesses open and protect the vulnerable people in the community and many young people had paid the price and lost opportunities to live a normal life. The Leader of the opposition said that everyone needed to work together to rebuild lives, particularly the young. Referring to the media article on funding, the Leader of the opposition said that lessons in putting out the right message needed to be learned. Finally, he said he looked forward to the delivery of the administration’s programme of works over the next 2 years.
Other Members raised questions and raised points including:
· The country needed housing, what were the Government doing wrong?;
· supported the financial bid to support the Isle ofSheppey;
· sought clarification that there could only be one bid as there was only £20million so the bid needed to be submitted properly;
· did Government make the wrong call by suspending the opening of pubs?;
· affordable houses in the right places were needed, not 5-bedroomed houses;
· support for Rainbow Homes and highlighted additional social housing provided over the last two years;
· joined up working with KCC and the health service to tackle mental health and improve support was essential;
· could the Leader confirm that this Council had always supported improvements to Stockbury roundabout?; and
· did the Leader believe the Government would deliver funding this time?
In response the Leader said that whilst more homes were required, more social and affordable housing was needed in the right places and local housing needs were not being met. He said there was a concentration of excessive housing in the South East which caused regional migration.
He urged Members to check information in the media before broadcasting incorrect information. The Leader commended the MP who had confirmed the facts with him and would be working with SBC to produce a plan for the funding bid. In addressing the lockdown and travel bans, the Leader said whilst it was vital the lockdown was extended he questioned why the UK boarders were so slack throughout the pandemic and said there was a failure of the Government and Public Health to protect the public.