Here is my Party Leaders piece in the Harlow Star this week:

After four years of Conservative control Harlow Council is delivering more for less, plugging the financial black holes that Labour left us and trying to make the town a better place to live and work. Under Conservative control, we have frozen Council Tax for the last three years – it doubled under ten years of Labour.

We have preserved the future of our community services, doubled recycling levels to over 50%, renegotiated the Kier contract to provide better service and more than £4m savings, and we are investing £20,000 pounds to improve landscaping and tackle litter hotspots in each ward – we are committed to investing in our local community.

That’s why after decades of neglect we secured £3 million investment in the cemetery and crematorium. To promote jobs, supported by Robert Halfon MP, we were chosen as one of 19 places in the country for an enterprise zone – creating up to 5,000 jobs. We also successfully secured £3.5m to upgrade the roads to support this.

Through working hard for residents and protecting our community services the Council has been shortlisted as one of the best performing in the country and nominated for a community investor award – we run an achieving Council that local people can be proud of. Nobody appreciates people who stand for office and sit on the fence.

Labour is fighting this election with no manifesto, no alternative budget and no ideas for how they would run our town. This is a very dangerous position – with no budget or plan to save the community services Labour would therefore have to close them.

Residents deserve an Administration that are passionate about getting things done to improve our community. My Conservative colleagues and I have a clear record of delivery on all the key issues faced by our town.

Well folks, we managed it – We have just agreed at Full Council to freeze Harlow’s Council Tax for a historic third year running.

For the third year running we have topped up the reserves – a far cry from the “black hole” we inherited on taking over the council four years ago.

For the third year running, the Labour party in Harlow failed to put up an alternative. Bereft of ideas they were happy to laugh and blame the government.

I don’t call that responsible opposition….

Last night at Harlow Council’s Executive Committee I felt like I was in a parallel universe….

I have always respected the Labour Party in Harlow; I have often disagreed with them obviously, but at heart they are a bunch of old socialists and have often stayed very true to their socialist principles, even during the Blair years, and as such you always know where you stand with them.

Imagine my shock last night then, to hear the Leader of Harlow Labour Party Cllr Mark Wilkinson argue that the council should offer a benefit to millionaires!!

We were debating the Leisure Card changes; the leisure card used to have 3 levels, A, B and C. A and B are now defunct as nowhere in Harlow offers a discount for them, so we were tidying up the system by removing them and re branding the category C cards as just “Leisure Card”.

Category C cards were available to anyone on benefits, which under the old Harlow Council definition, which had not kept pace with the rest of the country, included anyone in receipt of child tax credits or working family tax credits. As you might know households earning up to £50k per year can be in receipt of these “benefits”, so we have decided that Leisure Cards should be available to those who are in receipt of Housing or Council Tax benefit, on Income Support, Jobs Seekers Allowance or Employment Support Allowance, those who are disabled or with special needs and any children in full time education.

Where Councillor Wilkinson got upset was that previously anyone over the age of 60 was able to have a Category C card and now we have decided that if they are over 60 and fall into one of the above categories then they can have a card. Cllr Wilkinson played to the trade unionists in the gallery and spoke as though all people over the age of sixty are plunged into financial crisis and in need of as many benefits as possible. He wanted the Leisure Card to be available to all those over 60, regardless of the cost to the Council, and regardless of need.

As a compassionate Conservative, I believe that we should look after the most vulnerable in society and wanted to keep the Leisure Card for those in most need, given the councils diminishing resources and need to respond to the age of austerity.

Cllr Wilkinson thinks anyone over 60 deserves a “benefit” be they millionaires or just rich…. Shame on Him!

Amongst my group of friends are a nucleus of people who work in Local Government, the Civil Service, the Health Service and Education. Sometimes we joke with each other about “Joined Up Government” not really existing; In truth it often frustrates all of us that it often doesn’t!

In Harlow we are about to break that mould!

We are proposing to share our Revenues & Benefits service with neighbouring Uttlesford District Council, to our north. Cllr Jim Ketteridge, the Conservative leader there and I see eye to eye that the future of Local Government is shared services between councils, making savings that we need without dropping service quality and so we have been keen for our two councils to work closer together.

Both Harlow and Uttelsford Councils are recommending to their members, that in principle a joint partnership for the administration of Council Tax, Business Rates and Benefits is started. The issues is going to be discussed at Uttlesford’s Full Council on 19th October and Harlow’s  Full Council on 4th November.

A feasibility study was commissioned in the summer to identify costs and benefits (including savings) of the Councils working in such a partnership. Staff from both Councils have been involved in the feasibility study. That study has identified the potential for the Councils to save around £635,000 a year (Harlow £390,000 & Uttlesford ££245,000)

Now to most people who live in the “real” world, this sounds like a really obvious idea, and some would probably question just why this hasn’t been done before. Local government is tribal and councils often have not thought like this in the past, but given the financial situation that faces all councils at the moment it makes sense to start thinking differently.

Working with other councils is part of my plan to help the finances of Harlow Council and I hope that all members of the council, regardless of political persuasion will feel able to support this, as obviously its going to be good for Harlow!

Unless you live in a cave or perhaps a monastery, with no communications outlets, you wont be surprised to learn that the country is in a spot of financial difficulty and that the Coalition Government has started to, and intends soon to take some serious steps to reduce the deficit in public finances.  The big decisions will be taken with the Comprehensive Spending review in October.

Not being the sort to sit around and just wait for bad news, I have asked officers and members of the administration on Harlow Council to start thinking and planning ahead. Thinking how the Government’s actions might affect Council funding and planning on how we plug the impending financial gap.

Of course this sort of financial planning is not unknown in Harlow, and particularly my administration, which had to move an emergency budget within 100 days of taking office to try and put Harlow on a sound financial footing. We were successful and last year delivered residents a Council Tax freeze.

The coming financial year was always going to present some problems to us, as acknowledged in our Medium Term Financial Strategy (MTFS) where we were going to have to continue to make some savings to reach our goal of fully balancing Harlow Council’s Budget. However national events move along all the time, and now we are facing the serious possibility of cuts in Government Grants.

Although we don’t know the scale and detail of the reductions or even when in the next four years they may happen, YET; I have made sure that the Council is already looking at how it can deliver its priorities next year and in future years. Most important is that everyone, members, officers and the public understand that tough times are ahead and tough choices will be needed.

And tough choices must be made, because the Council must live within its means and yet continues to provide services and meet the Council’s priorities, whilst no placing an unnecessary tax burden on the public.

There has been considerable media speculation of reductions of between 25% and 40% to public sector funding over the next four years.

I have to say, that achieving those sorts of savings in Harlow will be a struggle. Just over half of the Council’s General Fund expenditure is met from Government grants, so it’s obvious that losing from between a quarter and a half of that cash will mean significant impact on the  services the Council can provide. Like I say, some tough decisions will have to be made but I am prepared to continue to make amd lead careful, levelheaded decisions, that seek to protect the services everyone in Harlow values most, where we can.

Year-on-year we have delivered savings for our residents through improving efficiency and this year we’ve frozen our share of Council Tax to reduce the financial burden on the hard pressed tax payers of Harlow. At this stage I must be realistic and say that we may not be able to freeze Council Tax again next year in order to maintain important services.  Given the Millions of pounds of  efficiency savings Harlow has found in recent years, the amount of efficiency savings we can deliver in future years  is now limited.  That does not mean that we wont try, and that we wont be thinking outside of the box to make savings for residents – we will.

The results of the Government’s Comprehensive Spending Review (CSR) will be announced on Wednesday 20 October 2010.  The CSR will give us an idea of the financial challenge that the Council will face and this will be followed up with much more detailed information for individual Councils which is expected in November 2010.  Needless to say, I will keep you informed!