The public sector has admittedly not had a great year. News reports of school closures because of aerated concrete make you wonder what is going on in this country. In the midst of this frustrating national picture, I believe Hampshire County Council (HCC) has got a number of things right over the past couple of years. I hope to cheer you up by dwelling on some of those successes.
In this modern age of working from home and kids constantly streaming content, being properly connected in the home is increasingly crucial. Last year HCC completed its £30m contract with Openreach to roll out high-speed broadband to rural communities. As a result, we now have 93 per cent superfast coverage in East Hants.
HCC is now working on Project Gigabit which will finish the job over the coming years. Under this £5 billion national scheme, a company called City Fibre has won a contract to bring superfast broadband to virtually every home in Hampshire.
I am looking forward to seeing City Fibre vans around the place.
I know that Openreach will also continue their commercial rollout.
The race between these two firms to connect up homes will be good for residents. HCC has played a central role in creating this positive dynamic, working closely with central government, with communities and with the private sector.
A local project which I received many emails about was the felling of ash trees on Stoner Hill, Petersfield.
This felling was undertaken for precautionary, road safety reasons. What we did not know, and could not have known, was just how timely the felling was. In the event, it turned out that many of the ash trees lining the road were literally soft in the middle of the trunk; the ash die back was more advanced than anyone had realised.
A severe storm would almost certainly have brought many trees down this winter.
As a result of the felling programme, I believe some terrible accidents may have been avoided. I acknowledge the operation created a messy look for a while, but I hope you agree it is all now reinstated and looking much improved with more light coming into the road.
Hampshire has always welcomed refugees fleeing war and persecution. During the Spanish Civil War, 3,862 children arrived on a ship from the Basque country and were looked after by local families.
The war in Ukraine has led to a wave of refugees fleeing the conflict. HCC has played its part by topping up the monthly payments to Homes for Ukraine hosts by £300. We also organise language classes and networking opportunities in our libraries for our Ukrainian guests.
Hampshire has now taken in the third-highest number of Ukrainians in the UK, a very impressive record. We continue to pray for the day when Ukrainians can return safely to their homeland – in the meantime it is pleasing to know Hampshire is providing a welcoming refuge for them. I am proud of the role HCC has played in this.
In the highways arena, HCC set up the first-ever highways materials recycling facility in Micheldever in 2021. This has reduced carbon emissions by 40 per cent and slashed costs by a similar amount.
We now have authorities from across the UK coming to view our operation and learn from us.
Despite the squeeze on local government finances, HCC has also managed to put extra funding into highways. An additional £7.5m per year is going in for reactive maintenance over the next three years.
We also have the largest traffic-calming scheme in Hampshire under way at Pulens Lane in Petersfield. This scheme will set a new standard for promoting active travel in Hampshire.
At HCC we have also been working closely with the Police and Crime Commissioner to address motorbike noise and speed, culminating in the new average speed cameras along the A32 and A272. HCC will continue to be proactive in making our roads safer and calmer.
A big personal priority for me is nature recovery. I want to stem the decline in bird species. I want to see more butterflies in the meadows. I even want to see more bugs splatting on to my windscreen – a routine occurrence just 30 years ago which is now depressingly rare.
At HCC we have founded the Hampshire Forest Partnership which is already achieving great success with planting projects delivered right across Hampshire.
We are now extending the partnership to schools; I launched the Young Tree Growers’ Guide in September, which is developing important tree-planting knowledge in a fun way.
Our 30 county farms are getting in on the act by helping to plant the Hampshire Hedge, a new wildlife corridor stretching from the New Forest to the South Downs. By working with partners like the Tree Council and the Council for the Protection of Rural England, we are having a big impact while spending very little taxpayers’ money.
And last but not least, HCC has got things right by prioritising care for the vulnerable. Our Connect4communities programme is bringing food and essentials to disadvantaged households.
Our Hitting the Cold Spots initiative will be helping everyone to stay warm this winter. And we have just allocated £173m towards refurbishing and upgrading our care homes so that we can continue to look after elderly people with complex care needs.
We will continue to work hard to improve the quality of life for everyone in Hampshire. And by the way, we have not had a single school closed in Hampshire because of aerated concrete.
By Russell Oppenheimer
Hampshire county councillor for Petersfield Hangers and cabinet member for countryside and regulatory services