It's a year since the Lib Dems' big election victory saw us take control of South Cambs District Council from the Conservatives. So what have the 30-strong Lib Dem Group been up to in the past year? Here's a roundup of some of our achievements.
At a Glance
In the past year we have
- Launched a three-year £400,000 fund for community groups
- Given more money to Mobile Warden Schemes
- Supported local businesses to get council work
- Saved the X3 bus service from the chop
- Identified sites for more council houses
- Launched the Zero Carbon Communities grant scheme to help community groups reduce carbon emissions
- Produced a new homelessness strategy
- Published a new toolkit for loneliness
- Initiated a new joint Local Plan with Cambridge City
- Increased Council Tax for empty homes
- Tailored the Localised Council Tax Scheme for Universal Credit
- Offered homes for five refugee families
- Provided Brexit help to businesses
- Sold land for self-build
New Business Plan
Following a public consultation, we drew up our new business plan for 2019 - 2024, which changes the direction of the council. We are committed to providing homes that are truly affordable; helping local businesses grow; being green to our core; and putting customers at the centre of everything we do as a modern and caring council. Check out the new business plan here
One of our priorities is to provide more council houses and to meet agreed targets for affordable housing in new developments. We are aiming to build at least 70 new council houses per year. So far in 2019, we have built 28 new homes and bought six more. We also completed 13 shared-ownership houses in the past year, and have 24 currently being built.
We have adopted a new housing strategy to deliver homes that are affordable, not just to buy but to live in. In addition to building new homes in the right places and at the right prices, we will strive to keep utility bills low by ensuring that the houses are as energy-efficient and water-efficient as possible. We also aim to build close to places of employment to encourage walking and cycling to work, as well as the use of public transport.
Green South Cambs
We have pledged to make South Cambs a zero-carbon district by 2050. We have installed solar panels on the roof of the Waterbeach waste depot, which provide about 25% of the plant's power. We recycle significantly more at the council offices compared with the previous administration, and have ended the procurement of single-use plastics.
We are continually exploring opportunities for greater energy efficiency, such as replacing streetlights with LED and installing electric-vehicle charging points.
We have refocussed the committee that administers council grants to make it more responsive to a range of needs and interests across the district. We have put more money into the Mobile Warden Scheme this year, and another increase is promised next year.
We have just approved a new Zero Carbon Communities grant scheme, which will make funds available to local groups for measures that reduce their carbon emissions and reliance on fossil fuels, such as insulation, solar panels, electric vehicles, tree-planting or cycle racks.
We have set a target of improving complaint-handling by 10% and we hope this will be exceeded. The ‘mysouthcambs’ customer portal is being rolled out, offering residents access to council services 24 hours a day, 365 days a year.
Although ‘mysouthcambs’ will lead to a lower footfall at the council offices, we have not forgotten customers who do not have access to, or cannot use, the internet and who prefer to speak to our officers. The visitor experience at Cambourne is therefore to be improved.
We won control of the council in May 2018 and are now a 30-strong group (previously 14). There are also 11 Conservative, two Independent and two Labour members. In a spirit of co-operation, we appointed an Independent councillor as Council Chairman, and for good governance, appointed a Conservative as Chairman of the important Scrutiny and Overview Committee. The seven-strong cabinet is made up of four women and three men.
Reorganising the Council
It became clear in putting together the new business plan that the existing structure of the council would struggle to deliver on our priorities. Furthermore, studies of other district councils showed that South Cambs had fallen behind in the use of new technology and working practices essential to a modern council. We commissioned management consultants to carry out a review and to recommend changes. Business improvement was their brief, not cost-cutting.
For most of the first year in control of the council, we had to work with the budget set by the previous Conservative-led administration. The council has recently approved the budget for 2019-20, which sets the priorities for the Lib Dem administration. The council no longer receives central government grants and the amount of Council Tax that can be raised is also capped by the government.
Our five-year financial plan has been altered to achieve more income from investments and commercialisation, with the aim of having 25% of the council’s £20-million income coming from these sources by 2024. The previous administration’s plans were to reduce general reserves to less than £3 million by 2023, while we are aiming for reserves of £4.5 million by then. We have already turned an inherited budget shortfall of £0.5 million into a £1-million surplus, which has gone into the reserve to help prepare for future uncertainties. Read more
New Investment Strategy
Our new investment strategy is ensuring Council Tax-payers are getting the best return from the council’s financial reserves. The previous administration did not have an investment strategy against which to judge the soundness of commercial opportunities, but we have put one in place.
One investment, Cambridge Ice Rink, is now close to completion. It is located off Newmarket Road on the edge of Cambridge but in South Cambs district. Last autumn the council approved an additional loan to ensure the completion of this high-quality community sporting venue that will benefit the health and wellbeing of residents. The ice pad will also meet the requirements of the International Ice Hockey Federation, allowing visiting teams from around the world to play there.
We have purchased the lease of an office block strategically placed in the Cambridge Science Park, which is producing close to a 6% net yield on a £13-million investment.
We have refocused Ermine Street’s (the council’s trading company to let homes on the open market) attention on South Cambridgeshire and the employment catchment of the Greater Cambridge sub-region, to provide properties that are not being supplied by current market conditions, such as rented homes for single people.
A Council with a Heart
We are working to find homes in our district for up to five refugee families fleeing conflict and violence. The Home Office previously asked the council to help with the rehoming of refugees, and two years ago the Lib Dem group put a motion to council proposing this but was voted down by the then-majority Conservatives. The current Home Office scheme runs until December 2019, and we aim to provide homes for these five families by then. Read more
Better Pay to Attract and Retain Staff
There is a relatively high number of unfilled posts within the council (which affects customer service). Recruitment has not been helped by a squeeze on staff pay implemented by the previous administration, which put us at a disadvantage against neighbouring councils and the Greater Cambridge labour market. We have increased pay by 3% over the past three months, while ensuring that no South Cambridgeshire employee earns less than the real living wage. We are also considering improved non-pay employment packages.
Around 40% of the council’s revenue and 52% of its services are delivered by Shared Services (in cooperation with other councils). It is apparent that, when they were set up under the previous administration, insufficient attention was paid to details of governance and accountability. We are working with partners now to rectify this.
After the 2018 election, two-thirds of councillors were new to the role. Working with Democratic Services, we have now fulfilled a comprehensive programme of training. The council holds regular member briefings and officer-member workshops. We have also been asking staff for their views and for ideas about improving the council, which has been very well received. Many of our members attended these events, which sends a powerful message that we are seeking to work together as one team to deliver the aims of the whole council.