Cllr. Carol Hart is the Leader of Erewash Borough Council
In Erewash in Derbyshire, as with many councils, we are in the last year of our four year term, and our thoughts have naturally turned to the elections next May, I know that we all need to look forward but I do feel it is essential we remind our residents and businesses just how much we have achieved over the last couple of years, despite Covid-19. We have had fantastic help from central government in the shape of all manner of grants and, although a challenge to our Finance Team who have worked evenings and weekends to get these grants out to our local businesses and vulnerable residents as quickly as possible, it has been good to get some really fantastic feedback showing appreciation of this help.
I think that, during the last two years, district and borough councils have shown just how valuable they are in delivering locally. We have stepped up to the mark at Erewash with our Neighbourhood Wardens helping deliver food parcels, our refuse teams, despite social distancing, maintained our refuse service with barely a collection missed – and it was nice to see how much this was appreciated with many residents leaving nice messages of thanks on their dustbins and even leaving sweets and goodies.
Of course we pulled out all of the stops to help with the Covid-19 situation, but at the same time the day job had to go on and that was a real challenge. At Erewash we had good news and some not so good news. The not so good news was that as our Core Strategy had to be drawn up, we have to find land for around 6,000 houses to take us up to 2037 – and we have no brownfield sites left. Either owners do not want to sell or developers are not interested in purchasing, so we were left with the dilemma of using some Green Belt land. We have always said we would protect our Green Belt but with just over 72 per cent of Erewash being Green Belt we had to put four Green Belt sites forward. They total just under one per cent of the Green Belt. However, we now have to try and convince the protest groups that have become very vociferous that we have no real alternative and that housing is desperately needed. It is easy for Government to say use brownfield sites but when none are available we have a big problem.
The good news was that we were asked to bid for up to £25 million for the Town Improvement grant for one of our two big towns, Long Eaton. Despite stretching our capacity to its limits, we got the bid put in in time and we now have a chance to work up our projects. The only cloud, of course, being that since we costed the project, prices have escalated and we may have to make some compromises.
Then more good news: we are offered a grant from the Levelling Up fund of £20 million for our other big town Ilkeston, great news again but the timescale again nearly meant we could not work a bid up in time. Several of our neighbouring district and borough councils were also working bids up. To try and get help we were all vying to employ a small nucleus of project managers and consultants. It is great to receive these offers of grants but the timescales are really unreasonable with the capacity available in districts and boroughs.
Of course, then to add to this, we were offered £2.7 million Shared Prosperity Funding, again fantastic but also again the timescales are unrealistic. Most councils have had to reduce staffing levels due to budget cuts and this impacts when we are asked to put bids together in such a short space of time. These grants are fantastic but give us a decent timescale not only to work the bids up but more importantly to carry out consultation with our residents.
Moving forward we now have our candidates for the May elections chosen, we are holding training sessions with the new ones and inviting the well-established councillors along too. You are never too experienced to learn something new and with social media taking over a lot of our more traditional ways of communicating with our residents, this can cause problems. Social media can be really useful but it can also be very toxic: think twice or three times before pressing the post button, things can come back to haunt you no matter how long ago you posted messages or stories.
Our message at the moment is ‘look what we are delivering locally as your Conservative Council’. The things that have been happening in Westminster over these last three or four months have badly impacted us locally – it is not edifying to see our MPs squabbling amongst themselves, criticising each other and being downright nasty. At Erewash, and I am sure at most councils, we have our group meetings and things can sometimes get heated but out there in the public we show a united front. What a pity some of our MPs are not doing that at this present time. Why on earth are we airing various disagreements and differences out in the very public domain? It really frustrates me but we are where we are. When we have the new PM in place on September 5th please let us get down to the serious business of running this country and delivering on our Conservative values. Put on a united front and this, in turn, will help us retain our Conservative-controlled local councils.