Cllr Spencer Flower is the Leader of Dorset Council.
Dorset Council has come a long way since May 2019 when the first all-out elections took place. The result was a small four seat majority for the Conservatives meaning that we formed the first administration. In my acceptance speech as Leader of the Council, I set out an ambition to work across the chamber to achieve the best outcomes for the communities of Dorset. This ethos of cross-party working has generally been a real success. Even at budget setting time we have enjoyed majorities of 49 and over. One of the key reasons for this has been early member participation in a review of budget pressures, challenges, and ambitions. We operate two budget cafes, which are open for all 82 members to attend, two scrutiny committee reviews, followed by Cabinet and then Full Council for decision.
Very early on we established a comprehensive transformation programme, which included the initial convergence of six councils into one, saving about £11 million per annum followed by the benefits of economies of scale and service redesign. We thought it would be possible to save circa £70 milion during the first five years of the council; we have achieved over £100 million after four and a half years expecting to reach approximately £120 million by the end of the first term. All these savings have been reinvested in front-line services; mainly Adult Social Care, Heath and Housing and Children’s Services.
The Conservative administration feel there is absolutely no doubt that embracing Local Government Reorganisation has been a huge success but it hasn’t been an easy ride, and the future looks bleak without there being significantly more Central Government funding. We get very little Revenue Support Grant (£674,000 in 2022) compared to other authorities, largely in inner city areas which get an RSG allocation ranging from £20 million to £30 million a year.
The view is that the Shire County areas have been poorly funded for decades by successive governments. Without a new funding formula, which applies proper weight to rurality and the ageing demographic in Dorset; we have 30 per cent of the population who are over 65 years old and rising, compared with the national average of 19 per cent. The burden for the additional costs currently falls on the local taxpayers which we consider to be grossly unfair.
As with all councils, we must set a balanced budget. Dorset Council, benefitting from transformation savings has been able to achieve this statutory requirement without any cuts to front-line services, which makes Dorset an outrider in the south west and compared with many other upper-tier councils across the country. However, we recognise the challenges in future years will make the task of budget setting far more difficult, with increasing demand without better funding for the sector by Central Government.
Dorset Council have a growing reputation for doing the boring stuff well, such as emptying bins, filling potholes, grass cutting, and street lighting. This is coupled with a strong focus on sound financial management supported by good governance oversight, underpinned by strong and constructive working relationships between members and officers.
We have a good track record of achievement based on being bold and ambitious with clear aims and objectives. This is an excellent basis to build a reason for the voters to once again give the Conservatives the opportunity to continue our good work by putting the needs and aspirations of Dorset residents first.
One of the other key ambitions is the preparation of our first Dorset Council Local Plan. The advent of the changes included in the Levelling Up and Regeneration Bill will enable the Dorset Plan to be supported by a more strategic approach. The removal of the duty to cooperate and the five-year land supply [provided the council has an up-to-date plan] will bring many benefits which we feel sure the people of Dorset will relate to and support.
Future ambitions should the electors of Dorset vote in favour of a Conservative administration further term; we will place an emphasis on achieving a multi-authority Devolution Deal. Talks are ongoing going between Dorset Council and other local councils. The opportunities devolution would bring are huge, which is why the appetite for applying for a level 2 non-Mayoral Devolution Deal is so strong.
At the October Full Council, members across the chamber voted overwhelmingly in favour of the recommendation to endorse the Council Leader continuing with talks with other council leaders leading to a decision early in the New Year.
Conservatives in Dorset are upbeat about our chances of winning the next local elections on May 2nd 2024. We will be fielding a strong cohort of quality candidates, with a mixture of sitting councillors as well as new candidates.
We are looking forward to the challenges ahead, with a strong belief that victory will be achieved by the Conservatives provided we continue to work hard and get our incredible positive message of past achievements and future ambitions across to the electorate.