COMMENT: Why we need a joined up approach to planning for the future
August is a quieter month at County Hall with fewer meetings, but work in some priority areas continues at a pace – one of those being putting together our capital plan.
In my speech to Full Council in July I referred to the considerable work that is currently underway on this. Our capital plan sets out how we will fund our services for the next four years and where we will make investments.
So why is so much effort going into this plan and why isn’t it just business as usual for us?
As a county we’re facing unprecedented housing development over the next few years. It’s estimated that around 3,500 homes will be built in West Sussex this year and that level is set to grow.
People who buy new homes need good performing schools for their children to go to, roads to drive on, a fire service to protect them, medical centres for when they are ill, the list goes on and on.
These demands need careful planning and investment and although our district and borough councils have the responsibility for producing their own local plans – which sets out how they will individually cope with housing growth within their areas - and giving planning permission for developments, there’s far more to it than that.
As a county council we take the lead for ensuring that the county has the infrastructure it needs to support housing growth so we need to make sure our approach to getting this right is as joined up as possible.
To be honest, we’ve never before had to respond to such a high volume of house development. It is a big responsibility for councils and councillors alike and we have to step up to the mark to meet these challenges. So you can see why putting together a capital plan is no easy job!
However I am pleased to say we are responding to these needs and challenges, but we know we simply can’t do it alone. We are working closely with our district and borough councillors to ensure we meet the demands of increased housing growth in that joined up way.
We are setting up growth boards with our district and borough authorities and we are sharing information and working side by side with colleagues
This is new and ground breaking work which is much needed because, like any organisation, we have to adapt to the demands of the environment we live in and things are changing all the time.
And we can’t lose sight of the fact that we are living and operating in one of the most challenging financial climates we have ever known.
We are seeking pragmatic solutions with all our public sector partners across the county to do the very best for our residents and that also means greater working with partners responding to their needs as well as our own in delivering services to our residents. That’s not the same as being ‘obsessed’ with outsourcing as I read recently.
I look back to when I joined the county council in 2001 - how the world and the county council has changed over the last 14 years! We thought the financial situation was tough back then but in comparison it was really quite kind.
But looking back to the past with rose tinted glasses and thinking that it is the right model then and therefore the right model for the future – think on. The world has changed out of all recognition – you only have to look at how we communicate and the use of iPhones and technology to see how far we have moved and we need to embrace all that technology into everything we do.
And the demands on our own services have changed enormously and the pressures on public services have never been greater. Some truly terrible child abuse cases such as Baby P and the recent awful revelations of child sexual exploitation in Rotherham have put extensive demands on our children’s services like we have never seen before – and we absolutely have to respond to this challenge to ensure we are safeguarding our youngsters.
In West Sussex we have a growing elderly population, which is good, but this also puts further demands on our adults’ social services.
Our adults’ services budget is £180million – the biggest of all our county council services – and it provides some absolutely vital services.
But talk to any county council leader across the country, whatever their political colour, and you will hear the same message that this budget is under severe pressure and these pressures are set to grow.
Yes, the government has responded and given additional funding for the increased duties under Care Act and of course the Better Care Fund, but where this budget is concerned it is simply the Oliver Twist message ‘Please sir, can I have some more’.
So it’s never been more important to get our capital plan absolutely right – and that’s no easy task .
But despite the financial climate, this county council has saved more than £120 million pounds over the last five years – and we’ve done it without putting our share of the council tax up by even one penny. These savings mark our contribution to reducing the country’s deficit. We have all had a part to play – it has been and will continue to be hard BUT it is the absolutely the right thing to do. You only have to look at Greece to sadly see the alternative option.
So we continue to operate in the knowledge that more savings are needed and will be needed in the future
But West Sussex County Council remains committed to its three key core priorities – giving children the best start in life, supporting and growing the economy and helping and supporting our older residents to remain independent in later life.
These, along with ensuring we’re always there for people in an emergency, ensuring we protect and safeguard our young and old and ensuring we help our communities to help themselves will form the backbone of our capital plan for the next four years.
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