The Society Hosts the Leader of the Council

The Society welcomed in this, the first meeting of its 50th year, Cllr. Mike Wilcox, the new leader of the District Council, who talked to a very well attended January meeting about his vision for the future of our area. Opening, he set out his vision for the Council. Four principles governed his style of leadership; all needed to be in place to ensure that the Council had a strong, robust foundation able to weather what would be a difficult period for local government. Firstly, he was acutely aware of the comments that the Council should be more open. He wanted both members and officers to be better at listening to all opinions and to share information. He has led the way in instituting regular meetings with leaders of the other political groups and issuing his own regular bulletin to all councillors. Secondly, he was promoting active engagement across the wider community. He has led by example, visiting 14 of the 27 Parish Councils in the District so far, but wants all members and officers to be better at listening. Thirdly, as a banker, he recognises that the Council's financial stability is essential. We have a 1 million reserve for contingencies, but with a 877,000 cut in the Council's settlement from central government in the coming financial year and a further 1.4 million reduction in 2012/13, he felt that these reserves may well have to be eaten into, to sustain services at an acceptable level. Finally, he wanted to see succession planning at the Council. We need the right people in the right places to ensure the strong, focussed delivery of services. In that context, he believes that our 56 councillors could be reduced to around 30, ensuring that all had a valid role and responsibilities...and there would be a financial saving too.

Combining these principles with budgetary constraints meant that inevitably there would be an intensive search for savings both in service delivery and in the "back office." The Council already shares waste collection services with Tamworth and has saved 400,000 as a consequence; financial services are shared with Solihull Council. They would continue to look at ways of streamlining services in this way. As for front line services, all Cabinet members were looking at ways of delivering them in more efficient ways. Perhaps, he said , the Council's bowling greens should be handed over to the resident bowling clubs to manage? Areas of open spaces and possibly parks could be given to Parish Councils to manage. These approaches chimed in well with the Localism Bill with its principles of devolving power and responsibility back to the community. The Localism Bill should be enshrined in legislation by the end of the year, and with it, "Big Society" powers for the community to veto council tax rises as well as empowerment for new neighbourhood groupings, including powers to permit certain types of small scale development.

Finally, before an intensive question and answer session, Mike confronted the issue of housing development. Some new housing was inevitable. The District could not stand still. Wealth creation was essential if the District was to move forward. There are no longer any prescriptive housing targets, but the evidence prepared by the regional planners is still relevant and is the basis upon which the Council had recently consulted the public. He did not want to promote building on Green Belt land. Once all views have been received, the Council will publish its definitive proposals in the Local Development Core Strategy in the Autumn.

Turning to the lengthy question and answer session, Mike confirmed that he wanted to see a balance between new housing and the provision of land for new jobs. He did not want to see new housing without new jobs. He stressed that he would not be swayed by government inducements of money for new housing , but conceded that the implications of new housing on the need to provide improved transport and social facilities had to be considered.

Predictably, the Friarsgate development caused a long, robust debate. Following the recent public consultation on revisions to the scheme, he hoped to make an announcement by the end of February when both the anchor store and developer funding should be in place. Despite his desire earlier in the meeting to promote the principle of engagement, it is apparent that the Council is contractually committed to the developers, Harrisons, and the design of the scheme is more or less fixed. This, despite the audience's resounding criticism of the design, quality, scale and traffic implications of the scheme, which many thought would be alien to the character of the City Centre. The criticism continued over the Council's apparent lack of vision for the City, marked by its absence in the draft Core Strategy. Conservation was being threatened by the drive for more City Centre investment. And where was the Council's parking strategy? It s absence from the Draft Core Strategy was considered a serious omission.

Inevitably, the impact of the railings around Minster Pool was raised. Yes, he would review their impact once they had been painted and take on board public comment. Just how he would weigh the scale and depth of comment remains to be seen. What is clear is that the Society needs to maintain its vigilance over this project, which even Mike conceded could have been dealt with differently.

Mike's presentation did provide a breath of fresh air. He was certainly more open in his comments compared to many politicians who have visited the Society, but it is early days in his administration. It remains to be seen if he can maintain and implement his principles of openness and engagement in the face of the entrenched systems in operation in local government.

Roger Hockney
January 2011