It’s a great delight to be able to address you for the third consecutive time as the leader of the Conservative administration in Harlow. Since last year the national political landscape has continued to change, with the people of Harlow electing Rob Halfon as their new MP with a 5000 majority, and with the people of the United Kingdom throwing out a Labour government that had near bankrupted the country. In its place is a progressive coalition prepared to tackle the issues of overspend and reckless deficit setting head on.
I’m hoping that the new Government will be as successful as this administration here in Harlow has been for the past 12 months. Our major success this year has been being able to keep the councils element of Council Tax identical to 2009’s. A Council tax Freeze! We’ve done this while protecting front line services and in the face of variable income streams and increases in demand for the good work the council does.
We continue to play a positive role in the regional and sub-regional agendas, ensuring that Harlow punches well above its weight. Harlow Council continues to be well regarded as a partner and community leader, and many in the town and beyond recognise that the tough choices we have made and still have to make in the current economic climate are the right choices.
What are these right choices?
Well they begin right here in the town centre. Regenerating the town continues to be our top priority and we have made real progress in the past twelve months. The consultation on the Town Centre North project was highly successful, with over 2000 people responding. Harlow Renaissance is working with the Council to improve the town centre, with new trees just one of the successes so far. There have been enhancements to the bus station, a deep clean of the pavement and in the run up to Christmas the Town Centre Partnership ran a hugely successful series of events, supported by Council sponsored Thursday night free parking in the town centre. The Town Centre Partnership were shortlisted for the Association of Town Centre Managers’ “Partnership of the Year” award – recognition of their excellent work.
Even when things haven’t been so positive we’ve managed to make the best happen. Although we were disappointed by Stockland leaving Harlow and returning to Australia, we have managed just in the past weeks to purchase for the princely sum of £1 the subsidiary that owns the plans and contracts with the architects and other professional advisors. While we wait to select a new developer later this year we continue to work with key anchor tenants to formalise their commitment to the scheme.
The Town Centre though isn’t the only place where development and investment is happening. Despite the slow down in the construction industry, we have managed to push ahead, with partners, the work to widen the A414 near the M11. A new bus and cycle lane is open on First Avenue and we continue to work with Essex County Council to develop Harlow as a “cycle town”. Planning permission has been granted and funding secured for a new University Campus adjacent to Harlow College. For even younger people and the young at heart, the Prentice Place Playground will soon be open, delayed only briefly by the discovery of fascinating Roman Remains. We’re continuing with our schemes to provide new housing and commercial premises in Old Harlow, Clifton Hatch and Prentice Place.
And it isn’t just Harlow Council working by itself. This administration put together a successful bid with Conservative led Epping Forest and Uttlesford for money from the Future Jobs Fund. That money has meant that over 80 people have already been employed in new jobs that they wouldn’t otherwise have, with almost another hundred due to join them over the coming months.
Providing new jobs in a cost effective manner. Who would have thought it was possible? We did and we made it happen.
We continue to work closely with the thriving business sector that Harlow needs to carry on being successful. This year we were named by the Essex Federation of Small Businesses as the Council which has done the most to work with the business community in its area. Only three weeks ago we sponsored the first ever Harlow Business Exhibition which was a roaring success. We introduced free advertising for local businesses in the Harlow Times to help them get through the recession.
But it’s not just about small business. Of course, like many in the town we were disappointed to learn that GSK were scaling down their operation in Harlow. We’ve been working closely with GSK and their contractors to make sure that we get the best possible public sector help for those affected by these developments, including running a jobs fair aimed at scientific staff threatened with redundancy.
But of course the best solution is for the site to be used by another enterprise, and as you will all know, the quick action of the Council in responding to these events means that the Health Protection Agency are currently positively considering moving a significant part of their operation to the Pinnacles.
Making Harlow a council that works closely with business. Who would have thought it was possible? We did and we made it happen.
We’re not going to waste the opportunities that we have, and that includes the area of sanitation. I guess you could say that we’re not going to let waste go to waste. This year we have seen a doubling in recycling rates, so now around 50% of what gets thrown out by households gets turned into something else. As we moved to alternate fortnightly collections for household waste and recycling we’ve met the challenge of educating and equipping the people of Harlow as to how best they can look after their environment. Particularly welcomed has been the weekly food waste collection which has kept our bins smell free and diverted hundreds of tons of food from landfill.
Together with Kier Harlow we’ve replaced the block cleanse system with enhanced street cleaning, reducing the amount of waste sent to landfill and are achieving great turn around times. Data from the National Audit Office shows that our performance in keeping the town clean was joint 5th in the Eastern Region and in the top 11% for the entire country.
When it comes to helping the environment and saving money at the same time we’ve been busy. Harlow has secured over half a million pounds worth of funding for home insulation through the Herts Essex Energy Partnership. Over 500 homes have been insulated for free or at low cost through Heat Seekers.
Our commitment to the environment doesn’t stop there though. This year Parndon Wood Nature Reserve won the prestigious Green Flag Award at the first time of asking. There are over 17,000 visitors a year to the Nature Reserve and they’ll all enjoy the benefits of nearly 60 thousand pounds worth of grants we’ve obtained for woods and ponds throughout the town. And the visitors will also benefit as will Council Tax payers from the profits the reserve is now making from selling wood products like charcoal, timber and furniture.
Environmentally friendly and cost effective at the same time. Who would have thought it was possible? We did and we made it happen.
And speaking of cost efficiency, the Council has maintained its performance on collecting rents, handling voids and general estate management. In some places we’re even doing much better then other social housing providers. We have new processes in place to deal effectively with cases of anti-social behaviour, working with the police and other agencies to be much more joined up in our combined approach to casework.
We want to get value for money for the people of Harlow, so we’ve commenced work on the Social Fraud Initiative which will crack down on illegal sub-letting and other ways that the people of Harlow are cheated of their money. We’ve introduced a corporate debt policy for Housing to make sure we have a consistent approach when dealing with all aspects of debt recovery. We’ve updated fire safety plans and risk assessments on all Tower Blocks. We’ve successfully introduced a learning analysis of all the complaints that we’ve received, ensuring that we fix problems faster and better then ever before.
We’ve introduced an automated telephone service to the council to make sure contacting the council is easier for residents. We’ve reduced the time that new benefits claimants have to wait for receiving the money they need and our “See the Benefits Day” helped the people of Harlow claim over £25,000 additional benefits that they didn’t realise they could get. And because we’re working hard to make sure the money that the ordinary people of Harlow goes where its needed and not to fraudsters, we successfully identified almost two hundred thousand pounds worth of fraudulent benefits, prosecuting 22 false claimants in the process.
We continue to look after the most vulnerable in society, with developments like the implementation of a Sheltered Housing Review. 9 sheltered schemes were successfully re designated to over 60s general needs housing, and by outsourcing the call handling service and introducing a new staffing structure we saved the people of Harlow over 40 thousand pounds. Everybody over 85 in Harlow got the option of free Telecare services for 12 months and a new community support service has been developed, with weekly visits and alarm equipment to summon assistance in an emergency. A new Residents Association has been setup at Halyday House and working with the active life co-ordinator from Conservative run Epping Council we’ve hosted armchair aerobics sessions and Wii Fit training seminars in sheltered schemes. Outside the front door we’re working with the tenants of Tylney Croft to create an allotment to help them grow their own vegetables.
Caring for the vulnerable, sensitively and professionally, in a cost effective manner. Who would have thought it was possible? We did and we made it happen.
What else has happened this past year that we should be proud of? Harlow’s overall crime rate reduced in 2009/2010 by more than any other District in Essex. Two pilot multi-agency Neighbourhood Forums were held and proved so successful that they are to be rolled out across the town. The Council was the lead agency for Crucial Crew – an event delivered to every Year 6 pupil in Harlow with the aim of increasing knowledge and understanding of personal safety issues
Following on from the support to our armed forces in giving the Essex Yeomanry the Freedom of Entry into the town, on Armed forces day this year we raised a special flag on the Civic Centre to acknowledge the service and sacrifice that the men and women serving all over the world for this country make. Meanwhile our support for help for Heroes has made over £500
The Playhouse hosted the most successful Pantomime to date in 2009-2010. The Council has made a number of improvements to its commissioning and procurement work, including the introduction of electronic tendering and close working with the SME sector. The Council worked with partners to support the launch of a new Multi-Faith Forum for Harlow. Contact Harlow dealt successfully with over double the normal amount of enquiries during the year, and has also introduced new web kiosks to help customers self-serve.
Harlow Council supported health targets by introducing a range of work-place exercise activities, and was awarded the Fit For Business accreditation. The Council supported the Kickz Project which provides a range of sporting activities for young people in partnership with The Incredible Tottenham Hotspur Football Club. The Scheme won the Innovative Scheme of the Year Award at the Harlow Sports Awards. The Gateway Scheme has successfully delivered new housing and sporting facilities – including the new state-of-the-art Leisurezone wet and dry sports centre. And only this week we’ve secured preliminary funding from both the Heritage Lottery Fund AND the Big Lottery Fund for a scheme to revitalise the town park.
All this, and no increase in Council Tax. More services for the public whilst maintaining a balanced budget. Who would have thought it was possible?
We did and, and we made it happen.
What about the future? Well, we continue to look to achieve the best for this town and its people. As I’ve already mentioned, we’re working hard to bring a major employer to this town and actions we take tonight may very well help with achieving that goal. And in our ongoing work to make the council run better and more efficiently, we’ll be approaching the voters of Harlow with proposals to change the nature of the executive administration of the Council.
All of this against the worst possible budget position left to us by the outgoing Labour government, means that public sector spending is likely to be tightly controlled by government and suggests that there is more hard work to come in cleaning up labour mess – something we are more than used to in Harlow.
Madame Chair, it’s been a brilliant and humbling two years being able to lead this fantastic town forward into the future. I look forward to many more successes.