WHILE it goes against the grain to criticise a fellow Conservative Council, the BBC Radio Five phone in presenter had backed me into a corner. Did I disagree with Surrey County Council for raising council tax by almost three per cent? My short and sweet answer – yes.

Let me hasten to add, I have no issue with Surrey – I understand their budget issues. They are not alone in refusing the Government grant to freeze the council tax.

Things are no easier in Harlow. We are staring down the barrel of an 11.8 per cent cut in our funding, and our budget proposals for 2012/13 – announced on Monday night – had to cover a £1.8 million funding shortfall.

But Harlow Council will freeze the council tax, this year, and that is the right course for two reasons.

First: our residents are suffering an unprecedented squeeze on their household budgets. It hurts every time they visit the petrol station forecourt. They simply will not accept the town hall jacking up another bill.

Two – and this is my substantial point – there are things councils can do to cut back office costs and find innovative ways to save money.

So what did we do in Harlow?

Well, we turned the Big Society into reality by finding new providers for our most popular services – like the museum, the town zoo and our nature reserve. Transferring these services to voluntary or charitable organisations has saved us three quarters of a million pounds. Further big savings have come from cutting one senior management post (£100,000); changing the way we manage planning and public enquiries (£300,000) and moving housing staff from another office in Harlow to our civic centre (£60,000).

Sharing services will also hopefully pay dividends. We are working with a nearby District Council to merge our revenue and benefits teams and save a projected £500,000.

I won’t go on, but you see the point. My authority is as strapped as any other but we are cutting the back office with a minimum impact on the front line.

Amidst this, we will actually spend money too – for example, £11,000 on tidying up projects in every ward, to be chosen by our residents. We are setting up a £30,000 fund to celebrate the Diamond Jubilee, the arrival of the Olympic torch relay in Harlow and our town’s 65th birthday (Harlow was designated as a new town on March 25th, 1947). Our residents expect financial prudence, but I believe they also want to have some fun.

As a Conservative, I believe this approach – seeking new partners, cutting our costs and looking to offer services in a new relationship with the community – to be the right one.

Freezing council tax is now the standard, not the exception and austerity is sending us down a motorway without exits – to borrow the Tam Dalyell quote on devolution – where the financial speed limit will remain zero.

Acknowledge that, and the public will know you share their pain. Embrace it proactively, and you may even get their support.

Cllrs Lee and Sarah Dangerfield have deceided to step down as Conservative Councillors on Harlow District Council. 

Since they were both up for Election in May 2011 anyway, there will be no by elections and the seats will remain vacent until then.

Lee has decided to stay as a councillor on Essex County Council.

I would like to thank Lee and Sarah for their hard work as Conservative Councillors both for their residents and the Conservative Party and I would like to wish them well for whatever they do in the future.

A good meeting last night/late afternoon with the Leader of Essex County Council, Peter Martin, at County Hall in Chelmsford.

Peter is one of the Good Guys in my books, a County Councillor who has risen to the top and is not afraid to get his hands dirty, having been to Harlow to help out in election campaigns and knocked on doors alongside myself and Rob Halfon. He knows and understands Harlow and that makes our conversation even more productive.

We are able to chat with excitement about the new LEP and how to make it work best going forward, and we are also able spend some time talking about how councils can think out of the box and share more services, something you will know I am very keen on.

I look forward to working closer with Essex over the coming years.

I was privileged to go to the Houses of Parliament today, for a meeting in one of the committee rooms of the House of Lords to launch the LEP (Local Economic Partnership) for Essex and Kent.

It is always an amazing experience to walk the halls of our Mother of Parliaments, knowing that for hundreds of years, many great MP’s and Lords have walked them before you. It gave me a special feeling in my tummy…

The launch of the Essex/Kent/East Sussex LEP was a very good event, attended by many Council Leaders and Business Leaders (I sat next to the Chairman of Ford UK) who all wanted to work together.

I have strong hopes for the LEP and the M11 sub group received a nice mention from Peter Martin, the leader of Essex County Council.

Community projects all over harlow have the chance to access money from Essex County Council.

The West Essex Area Forum has been given £50,000, to be used on schemes that currently do not benefit from County Council funding. Each project can apply for grants of up to £4,000.

County councillor Guy Mitchinson, who represents the Harlow West division, has been pushing the scheme to local residents and taking the cause to local papers so that as many groups as possible know about the money.

To qualify for a grant, the projects must improve people’s lives and have the support of the local community. Matched funding is desirable but not essential.

An application form can be obtained by calling Yvette Wetton on (01206) 436079 or email yvette.wetton@essex.gov.uk.

The closing date for applications is October 5.

Guy told me that

“To my continuing annoyance Harlow has lagged behind neighbouring areas like Epping, Brentwood and Uttlesford in securing grants under schemes such as this. So please, if you think you may meet the criteria contact Yvette Wetton today. Remember, nothing ventured, nothing gained.”