Recently I was able to spend some “quality time” with Eric Pickles in the back of his Ministerial car. Public meetings are great but there is no substitute for straight talking in private to get to understand an issue. I was able to explain to him his cap on council tax is likely to hurt economic growth in the county. He got it.
I have been concerned that funding for this county is not sufficient to sustain the huge economic growth that we have achieved so far and more importantly what we want to achieve. Council tax plays a significant part in our funding and as we are all aware government is seeking to encourage all authorities not to raise it. In principle I agree with that. Low tax is good, high tax is bad.
This one size fits all policy has different affects up and down the country. In the land of labour, where tax is higher and often not spent efficiently this policy will drive the removal of fat. There is little growth and more money is spent on “state” activities. The policy here is good.
In our case, we have economic growth and want more. We already share our back office functions with Northamptonshire, I negotiated a cut in my chief execs pay, we are a relatively low tax authority and we are transforming all our services to do more with less. And on top of all that we are the fastest growing county in the country with a 12.4% growth during the last census period. This is also good.
But ………….. If we do not have money available to spend on promoting growth because it is all diverted to adult social care or children’s services economic growth will be affected. We are contributing £25m to kick start Northstowe to get over the viability issues at the outset of the plan when drains / roads / infrastructure needs to be in place before you can build the houses. We are funding the new station in Cambridge, the new bypass in Ely, the Superfast broadband, the bank ………… And so it goes on.
We believe these initiatives are right because they promote economic activity to help our county, our region and our country climb out of this recession. If individuals can help themselves they don’t call on our services so we all win.
Sunday night I travelled up to Burton on Trent to attend the County Council Network conference. It was held in the Hilton St George’s Park which has been built to support and promote football excellence. It was new, out in the middle of the country and fantastic.
I spoke a number of times in full conference about economic development to significant applause. I had the honour to be the main speaker at a seminar on growth and the economy. It was a packed room. I majored on leadership and how council leaders can affect thinking much wider than just the councils they represent. I talked about some of our investments and initiatives. Other leaders were fascinated about our new bank.
The mood in the room was positive and it felt as if I had touched a nerve. This was confirmed a few minutes later when I was asked by one county to come and talk to their Cabinet on growth and then asked by another county to carry out a peer review. Very exciting.
But what was really interesting was that twice at the conference Eric Pickles referenced Cambridgeshire remarking amazing things we are doing. He even referred to me as “my friend from Cambridgeshire” which is much more positive than what was being said after we put up council tax to fund growth last year!
Add to that yesterday’s announcement of government help for Northstowe, the positive and swift action of DfT to get the A14 widening back up and running it really feels like we are making a difference with government.