Today is one of the proudest days of my life. South Kesteven is my home. It is where I grew up, where I went to school and, like many of my fellow councillors, my family lives here, as do many of my friends.
What happens in South Kesteven matters to me on a very personal level. The privilege of now representing this district as its new council leader means a great deal to me. Thank you for giving me this opportunity.
As with most jobs, this role is all about the people. The people we work with, the people we work for, and the people we serve.
Regardless of our differences, this is the one thing that unites us all in this room - elected representatives and council staff alike. I know, from having worked with you over the past nine years, that however much we may disagree at times, we are all here to do the best we can for the residents of South Kesteven, to deliver the quality services they want, they need, and they rightly expect.
My colleague and friend, Cllr Matthew Lee, has just spoken about some of our achievements over the past couple of years and reminded us that there is still a long way to go and that the challenges we face remain largely the same.
He is right. For two years, I was his deputy. We did not always agree - I've never actually met two people who do. But as my fellow councillor from across the chamber, Charmaine Morgan, quite rightly pointed out in her column for the Grantham Journal back in August, Matthew had many very good ideas.
And those ideas dramatically shifted the direction of this council, enabling us to better face the ongoing financial challenge of the cut in central Government funding and changes to the local government financial mechanism.
Those changes mean that we have to become more commercially focused and we have to invest to save.
As a council, we face some difficult decisions ahead as we strive to provide quality services with balanced books while keeping council tax rates steady.
I would like to thank our Cabinet member for finance, Cllr Adam Stokes, and those members and officers who have supported him in ensuring that this Council has a fully-funded three-year financial plan in place.
Our finances are healthy and our position secure.
Naturally, spending plans can change as the council drives forward its growth and corporate strategy ambitions, but all proposals are fully appraised to ensure costs are accurate and affordable in the context of the council's finances. The council continues to hold a healthy level of reserves and balances including an allocation to mitigate against any unforeseen fluctuations in annual expenditure. This is a very responsible and prudent approach taken by the council to manage any potential financial volatility.
There is no doubt Madam Chairman, that councils are facing an uncertain financial future as the Government continues the national conversation regarding funding levels for the public sector.
This period of uncertainty has now been the reality for the last 10 years. Against this backdrop, the council has continued to invest in services, grow the district and deliver the priorities residents tell us are important to them. The next financial challenge is expected from 2021/2022 and we are already preparing for this challenge by incorporating plans to reduce costs, grow income and invest in business and housing growth.
We are realistic about the challenges ahead and robust business cases and careful spending plans are key to our medium-term financial health.
In terms of our annual audit inspection, the council received a clean bill of health for the financial year ending 31 March 2019. To put this into context, only 60% of all councils received a fully positive audit opinion within the statutory timetable of 31 July - and we were one of them.
The auditor also has to provide a value for money statement. In this instance, the auditor requested a short extension. Although this extra scrutiny is a first for South Kesteven, it is not unusual, and is merely an indication of the robustness of external audits. I am happy to tell you that we have now heard back from our auditors, who have, as we expected, delivered a positive value for money statement.
Madam Chairman, despite all the progress this council has made, and our sound financial footing, a change in leadership presents us with an opportunity to reflect, review and, if appropriate, revise. And that is what I intend to do.
Now that does not mean we are changing direction, I am proud of what we have achieved. We are on the right track, we are making progress, and we are delivering. But we can still learn, and we can still improve.
We already have a robust scrutiny process in place, but I am pleased to be able to confirm that on the agenda today we have the terms of reference for our Companies Committee which, hopefully, will hold its first meeting in November.
Our new scrutiny officer has joined the council's Democracy team and will provide additional resource to support the chairs of our overview and scrutiny committees in meticulously scrutinising decisions and providing appropriate challenge to Cabinet members. In addition, we are in the process of recruiting a new Head of Governance to further improve effective delivery of our corporate objectives in alignment with our statutory and legal requirements and obligations.
I am sure that like me, you are all delighted to be back in South Kesteven House. Now that we are in our own building, we will be able to record all council and committee meetings, with the exception of exempt items, just as we did before our temporary relocation.
And, although I welcome Cllr Baxter's dedication to filming and recording our meetings, and I do hope he will continue, I am keen myself for this council to film, record and stream its council and committee meetings so that anyone who is interested in what is being said and done can access that information via our website.
Now that may need to happen in stages. There are costs and technical issues to resolve. But I am committed to making this happen. We cannot be truly open and transparent without it.
When it comes to transparency Madam Chairman, there is always a balance to be struck between commercial confidentiality, data protection, and openness. However, we must seek to be as transparent as legally possible in order to enable good governance. Ultimately, transparency in public life, is at the heart of how residents hold public officials to account. And here in South Kesteven, we are here to serve our residents.
Madam Chairman, I would like now to turn our attention to our dedicated council staff.
Regardless of their role or position within this council, it is safe to say that staff here have had a challenging time over the last two years. There has been much change, and that change was necessary. But it has also created uncertainty for those who work for South Kesteven who have, nonetheless, delivered the work needed to support our vision. I am sure there are times when we could have communicated change better, and doubtless there are some lessons we can learn and implement for the future.
In 2017, we introduced an annual staff survey. Here, today, I am committing to ensuring that we continue with this yearly stocktake of what our staff think, how they feel, and what they need in order to help them fulfil their potential to deliver the best for this council.
Our focus over the next four years needs to be on stability and delivery. But we must keep moving forward.
That means there will be more change as we continue our mission to run an agile council that innovates and moves with the times. As technology changes society, we will work creatively to deliver more, in new ways, that exceed expectations and reflect the modern way of life, while holding true to traditional values.
There will be challenges for our staff, but I want us to move to a position whereby our staff feel that change is being done with them, rather than to them.
But challenges also bring opportunities. Chances for people to progress and to develop their careers within this council, and beyond the boundaries of South Kesteven. We have to accept that although some people may want to work for us for many years, others will come and spend some time here and then leave. What we must do is harness and develop that talent whilst it is here, and invest in, and nurture staff morale so that we build a positive work environment that in turn enhances our reputation as a good place to work. In the words of Richard Branson: "We need to train people well enough so that they can leave but treat them well enough that they don't want to."
I have talked about the working environment Madam Chairman. Now I would like us to turn our attention to the issue of THE environment.
As I said at our Cabinet Committee meeting two weeks ago, I want us to be a green council. We know that climate change is threatening our very existence, so it is right that we should be determined and ambitious.
We have already agreed plans to replace our council street lighting with LED lanterns; we are leading the way working with the Government to look at how food waste can be reduced and reused to generate energy; and we have gone out to tender for contractors to provide electric vehicle charging points in each of our market towns. There will be further details about all three of these initiatives as our work progresses.
Of course, this is only the beginning, but everything has to start somewhere, and we have to ensure that the targets we set are achievable and well-considered.
At our full council meeting in June, there was a passionate debate about the council signing up to the Woodland Trust's Tree Charter.
Nobody was arguing against the charter, but we needed to ensure the idea was properly explored through the right scrutiny channels and did not contravene our legal obligations.
Madam Chairman, I am delighted to say that just a couple of months later, we are working hand-in-hand with the Woodland Trust, based here in Grantham, to develop a Tree Charter that takes account of the legal obligations local authorities have to adhere to in this area of work; issues such as grounds maintenance and health and safety.
We are blessed with beautiful countryside in South Kesteven, with approximately 6,000 trees, or tree clusters, in the Council's open spaces. And the Woodland Trust recognises the need for a local government version of its Tree Charter. They have welcomed our input, and they hope to use the final version with other councils across the country. Yet again Madam Chairman, this council is leading the way.
I am sure my colleague, Cllr Dr Peter Moseley, will be happy to explain more about our work with the Woodland Trust in developing this charter and the next steps going forward. I would like to thank him and all those involved for their dedication and hard work in making this happen.
There is much work to be done when it comes to protecting our environment, but I hope that a more collaborative way of working with mutual respect and constructive challenge, will help to bring all political sides to the table in a more united approach to tackling one - if not the - most important challenges of this and future generations.
Madam Chairman, I was honoured to have been elected to serve my home community of Casewick back in 2011. With the support of many people in this room, from right across the Chamber, I learned quickly just how vast and diverse our role is.
As well as the vitally important job we do in getting the basics right: collecting the bins, running a well organised green waste collection service, and that ensuring our streets are clean, we also play a central role in the health and wellbeing of our communities.
Housing, leisure, and environmental health are key areas that affect public health. That is why we are:
But as we seek to build better communities, to look after those who need help most, and to enable generations of the same family to live together in the districts where they grew up, we must also continue to promote sustainable economic growth here in this district.
Doing so will enable us to create opportunities in our villages as well as in our towns so that our villages thrive and retain vital facilities such as schools, shops, and our much-loved pubs.
When it comes to our towns, grants, such as the one awarded to Grantham from the Government's High Street Heritage fund certainly help. The work of InvestSK in successfully securing this bid is to be applauded and I look forward to seeing the detailed plans as they are developed alongside key stakeholders and businesses in the town.
But we must continue to work with the private sector, engaging with businesses of all sizes, to generate sustainable economic growth. It is growth that creates jobs, funds better community services and facilities, and supports our local shops and businesses, making our district a better place in which to live, to work, and to invest.
Madam Chairman, Cllr Lee talked about the importance of working with the private sector and mentioned our new co-investment partnership; DeliverSK. It gives me great pleasure to be able to update this chamber on our progress. DeliverSK will be set-up before the end of the year.
One of its first projects will be to redevelop and regenerate the former Cummins factory site which, together with adjacent land owned by Burghley, has been renamed St Martins Park. St Martin's Park will bring jobs and new homes to Stamford in a high-quality environment in which the residents and businesses of Stamford, indeed of the district, can be proud.
As well as working with the private sector, I want to open the door to closer working with the third sector - the charities and good causes that make our communities kinder and more compassionate.
As many of you know, my first job following university was working for Waitrose at their headquarters in Bracknell. I worked in public affairs, managing and promoting the Waitrose Community Matters scheme otherwise known as the green token scheme.
The role brought me face-to-face with a number of people working for charities and good causes, giving their time tirelessly, selflessly to help those less fortunate than themselves. My eyes were opened to the sheer number of good causes and the volume of volunteers throughout our district and ultimately led to me realising a personal ambition - the creation of LotterySK.
Last week, we celebrated the 1stanniversary of LotterySK. In the past year, we have sold 100,000 tickets and raised more than £72,000 for the 92 charities already registered.
And I learned that LotterySK is in the top five lotteries of its type in the UK - of which there are more than 60. That, Madam Chairman, is quite an achievement.
During the anniversary celebrations last week, I met several people from the charities that have benefited from LotterySK.
They all have their own stories to tell, but a common thread was how grateful they were for the opportunity this council has given them to raise funds. And I would like us, as a council, to look to at how else we can support the many good causes throughout our district, whilst also being mindful of the need for transparency and efficiency.
Prevention is a golden thread I want to see running through everything we do as a council. By that, I mean supporting and helping the most vulnerable in our communities by getting in there early, where possible, to help improve the quality of their lives.
Taking a more proactive and preventative approach also makes sense from an efficiency viewpoint, vital in these challenging times. We can't do this alone, but in partnership with the private and third sectors in South Kesteven, we can aim high, and we can succeed.
Madam Chairman, we have much to deliver. There will be difficult decisions to make, and there are, undoubtedly, tough times ahead. But there are also opportunities.
I am honoured, humbled and proud to lead South Kesteven District Council. I look forward to the next four years, to working together and - by looking forwards not back - to delivering for our towns, delivering for our villages and, ultimately, delivering for our residents.