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….

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.

After getting past the excitement of the elections, the last week has been focussed on moving forward. Thursday night was the Annual Council meeting, that is the meeting that appoints both the Chairman of the Council and the Leader of the Council. Cllr Mike Garnett was Elected Chairman of Harlow Council for this year, and I was honoured to be relected Leader of the Council.
Whilst I didn’t have to name my cabinet at that meeting, I felt it would be right to do so, to let people know as quickly as possible who was going to be responsible for what. I also named the Chairmen of the other committees, including the two new Select Committees, powerful back bench scrutiny committees that can hold the cabinet to account. There is also a Call-in committee that can call in (question the detail of) any descision taken by the cabinet; I offered the Chairmanship of this committee to the opposition. 
Our Cabinet members & Chairmen for 2011 / 2012 are:

Resources Portfolio: Simon Carter

Environment Portfolio: Tony Hall

Governance Portfolio:  Eddie Johnson (Also Deputy Leader)

Community and Citizenship Portfolio: Joel Charles

Regeneration and Enterprise Portfolio: Russell Perrin

Housing Portfolio: Clive Souter

Select Committee Housing/Finance/Governance: Linda Pailing

Select Committee Environment/Community/Regeneration: Mark Gough

Audit: Sue Livings

Licensing: Nick Churchill

Development Control: Shona Johnson

Call-In: Given to the Opposition to ensure transparency

This is a very strong team who are determined to deliver for the people of Harlow, and I am very much looking forward to working with them over the coming year to improve Harlow for all.

Well, that was an interesting month.

Apologies for the lack of blogging, but I took the last month off anything external, including writing here, to campaign in the Harlow Council elections and for a No vote to AV.

I am pleased to report that I was successful in both, being re elected to Harlow Council with a majority of 818 votes over my nearest rival. The Conservative Party also kept control of Harlow Council, and Harlow voted overwhelmingly (nearly 74%) against AV.

Now that election madness is out of the way, I can get back to the rest of my life, and that includes Blogging.