Running a council is a huge and complex operation. There are hundreds of moving parts and scores of different services that all have an impact on each other and on the council’s finances.
And it’s a task that is being made even more difficult right now by our own government.
You might be surprised to hear the leader of a Conservative council say that about a Conservative government. And it pains me to do so.
But the lack of clarity we are seeing on some of the most important issues we face makes me feel I am running a council with one arm tied behind my back.
My priority, and I have said this many times, is the people of East Hampshire.
Since May EHDC’s political make-up has taken on a more multi-coloured hue than we have seen in the past. We all agree that it is better to work together for the benefit of our residents than to bicker on party political lines.
So, anything that hinders this council in delivering the best possible services to its residents is something that we must take to task – and that includes our esteemed colleagues in Westminster.
Some of our most fundamental services are currently waiting on the Government for crucial pronouncements.
We are expecting news on plans to collect more waste and recycling, guidance on housing targets and even clarity on how much, or how little, income we can expect from London in the coming financial year.
Waste collection, planning and finances. You could not pick three services more fundamental to the role of a district council than those.
And yet, at the time of writing, we are still waiting for long-promised information on all these issues and so our own plans hang in the balance.
Back in 2021 the government passed a bill calling on councils to collect a wider variety of materials for recycling. This is particularly pertinent to Hampshire where the scope of recyclable items is relatively limited.
The reader may not know that EHDC’s responsibility around waste is only to collect it from your doorstep and deliver it to Hampshire County Council, whose duty it is to dispose or recycle the contents of bins collected across the county.
Currently there are several items the county council is not set up to handle, such as food waste and certain types of plastics, so collecting authorities around Hampshire don’t collect them for recycling.
The new Environment Protection Act will change all that and give us all the chance to re-use a much greater variety of materials. But it will also mean a huge re-think about our waste collection service and will pose us a lot of questions. Will we need new vehicles for each separated item? If so how many? Will collections be more than alternate weeks? Might there be multiple collections a week?
Despite the logistical headache it will cause collecting authorities, it’s still a great idea and something we are chomping at the bit to get going on.
Except we can’t, because the Government has kicked the recyclable can down the road and the scheme will not be implemented until after the next general election.
So now we are left feeling frustrated that an opportunity to improve our recycling rates has been postponed, or possibly missed altogether. Meanwhile we cannot make detailed plans about how this work will be done until the Government tells us exactly what it wants collected.
Elsewhere we are also dangling on a hook waiting for the word on housing targets. Again, we were delighted when Mr Gove announced that the Government would be looking closely at such targets. A very welcome move.
That was back in December. A consultation following that finished in March. We were promised the resultant guidance ‘by the summer’. And yet we still wait.
One of the council’s most important duties is to create a Local Plan to guide the growth and development of the district. How can you do that without a clear and agreed housing target?
We heard a lot of encouraging stuff from Gove, but nine months later we still haven’t seen the words on the page that will help us develop a Local Plan.
And the same goes for our budget. Every year we receive about a quarter of our income through a Government grant. That figure has been dwindling annually over the last decade and more – that much we can be sure of.
But traditionally it is not until Christmas Eve we learn exactly what that sum is likely to be. We then face a scramble to organise a balanced and productive budget in time for council approval in February, one month later.
The Local Government Association has called for councils to be given notice of the expected grants a year or two years in advance, allowing them to plan their finances prudently. Surely more time makes more sense?
How can we plan without the tools we need to do the job? More clarity and less uncertainty will help us deliver to our residents. That’s the only thing that matters to me.