KCC heavy hitter Matthew Balfour gives County Hall report

 

Matthew Balfour's full report to the AGM is tabled below:

 

It has been a challenging year for KCC as, along with other local authorities, budgets are heavily constrained with savings of over £90 million having to be found. 

As part of finding these savings KCC has been reviewing every area of its activities to test how best they should be run in these straitened times.  This does not mean that services will be out-sourced, though that is one of the options particularly for back office functions, but more how better services can be provided more efficiently.  Any major change has to follow a consultation with all involved and it is an indication that KCC really does listen to responses that the Community Wardens have in the main been retained.  The Library Service is out for consultation at the moment with, following in T&MBC’s footsteps the suggestion that they should be run by a charitable trust.  

It might be useful to read parts of Paul Carter’s speech to the full Council’s budget meeting particularly as to the likely future of local government finance, particularly in the light of the expected announcement on Friday 27th February :

- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -

“I am enormously grateful for the co-operation and work we’ve done with the twelve boroughs and districts across Kent in increasing the tax collection rate through various strategies that we have jointly implemented, which has helped enormously. 

On Tuesday morning I spo ke at the Guildhall in the city at the NLGN Annual Conference alongside Sir Richard Lees, the Leader of Manchester, who’s been the Leader of Manchester since 1996.  He was talking about his Manchester city deal and I was talking about the opportunity for county deals.  I reminded everybody, from a very good paper published by the County Councils Network (CCN), that 40% of the GVA of this country is delivered in the counties areas, and more than the cities outside of London, which reminds everybody of the significance and importance of counties and the place and the role that counties play. 

Of course the debate went on around the potential for a future English parliament to devolve more powers to local government, some of which have already been ceded under this government to Manchester and I am obviously keen to make sure that counties get the same treatment and more so and the important role that we have in place making and place shaping and referred to our evolving infrastructure and growth strategy which sets out the massive challenges of the population of this county growing by some 17% between now and 2031 and what infrastructure we need in a fast changing health economy and social care economy, in education provision, provision for a growing elderly population and of course economic growth and the transport infrastructure needed so to do and beginning to put together that shopping list through our economic growth strategy for the county, well costed and looking at some of the challenges and some of the solutions that we can put forward to a successor government and of course very much the predatory tendencies of London and the GLA wanting to impose yet more housing on that already presumed 17% housing growth in our county of Kent. 

Sir Richard very much talked about his city deal but I talked more broadly about the opportunity to really empower that sense of place, the county area of Kent and Medway.  It was interesting that I left the Guildhall to chair the Kent Leaders Group where the main topic on the agenda was managing that infrastructure and growth agenda.  Sir Richard talked about the successes of the combined authorities in Manchester being the key to getting freedoms and flexibilities out of government.  We probably had the most constructive debate that the district leaders have had together about managing that growth agenda and totally unanimous in the process that’s underway in producing that very, very important document to take to government.  It made me think that if we can, across the twelve districts and boroughs in Kent and with Medway, put together a really coherent plan for growth and a deal for growth with any other freedoms and flexibilities we would need that it could be an enormously powerful document because we are, sorry to use the pun, in a very good place in my view in Kent and Medway and we should build on our ambition to create that sense of place, working with our health partners, and very good progress as a pioneer authority, in building a place where health and social care comes together to build a 21st Century health and social care system that gives access to good primary and community health services that majors on the preventative agenda and supports people in their community and, where possible, in their own home modelled around Dr John Ribchester’s vision for Whitstable that can be applied to any township in the county of Kent and creates a place where children and young people and their parents can have access to real choice in education as they do in Kent with good grammar schools, academies, high schools, free schools, special schools, a differentiated education appropriate to the ambitions and abilities of young people.  Again the travel pass allowing greater choice and access to education for young people in their choice of school and a place where we major on helping and supporting families to stay together very much based on the Essex County Council model of intensive focussed early help and preventative services that help fix vulnerable families and keep young people in the family environment and only take them into care as the last resort but a top priority in keeping children safe in their own homes and creates a place where the environment is conducive to economic growth and job opportunity.  In Kent we are doing exactly that through our significant capital investment in road and transport infrastructure and our significant investment in broadband connecting businesses across the county and indeed the good work we’ve done with the Regional Growth Fund, we are very lucky to have had that.  Manchester got a Regional Growth Fund allocation but they were prescribed that they had to give it out as grants and hence don’t have a recyclable fund in investing that money in interest free loans or equity stakes in businesses and in some case grants.  So generally Kent is in a good place to put a case to government to free up and empower their subsidiary offices called local government in putting together place based budgeting in a sensible and coherent way across the county.  Local government have become experts in delivering efficiency and transformation and there is so much we could do with all our partners to achieve that goal and when I talk about place I mean Kent and Medway and it’s up to Essex and East Sussex to sort out their priorities in their place. 

I am absolutely delighted we’ve got the Council Tax collection rate up.  On budget day the revenue budget does tend to dominate the discussion but we really have an ambitious capital programme in the budget book today and when you look at the breakdown of the £700+m that will be invested over the next 3 years well under 50% of that comes from grant from government and through the take up of prudential borrowing, which has to be afforded through the revenue budget, through our entrepreneurial activity in our property function in turning redundant assets into cash to be invested in further capital investments, through harvesting developer contributions we’ve been able to put forward a very creative, innovative capital programme which will help deliver the necessary school expansion and expansion in an infrastructure more broadly in the next 3 years.” 

- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -

It is only a little over a year since the devastating floods and a great deal of work has already been done learning from the lessons taught back then.  An army of Flood Wardens have been trained, investigative work started on how best to increase the capacity of the Leigh Storage Barrier, and specific schemes are in train for Tonbridge, Hildenborough and East Peckham. 

The KCC response to the Airports Commission was that there should not be a third runway at Gatwick.  This, of course, does not help those living in West Kent whose lives are blighted by the now admitted changes as to where flights into Gatwick are routed.  KCC continues to lobby the airport and, more importantly NATS, the CAA and the Department for changes.  At the same time KCC is in talks with the management at Gatwick to increase the economic benefits of the airport to the west of the county and in particular to Edenbridge.

At last work on the A21 is underway but KCC, along with others, is pushing government for further investment in what is a vital transport route. 

With the decision of the Minister due any day, the development of the grammar school extension in Sevenoaks should relieve some of the pressure on the excellent schools in Tonbridge and it is a success story that funding has been gained for two new primary schools in the north of the constituency. 

 

Political life at KCC remains “interesting” with a narrow majority and a fractured opposition, made only more curious by the main opposition party being fractured within itself and not necessarily voting as one!  Another good reason for T&MBC to remain as blue as possible in May.