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Council & Democracy

Sarah Conboy

Thank you for visiting my blog. I hope to be able to give you an insight into what goes on at Huntingdonshire District Council. Best wishes, Sarah.

I have no idea where the last three months went! We spent November, December, and January on budget preparations - you can't say we rush these things. A lot of time and careful thinking sits behind everything we do and every decision we make on your behalf. We've been looking at how we can save money with alternative power generation and by switching to more efficient energy-using products (the lights in Pathfinder House, for example, have been switched to LEDs). 

We have looked at how we can prepare for future financial challenges - we know we cannot rely on central government for funding certainty and need to find ways to generate our own income.  We intend to continue to ensure we can invest in income generation and have the money to look at how we staff our services to be as effective and efficient as possible (after all, we can have the best policies in the world, but they are meaningless without our highly-skilled and committed staff to make them a reality – have a look at how we are recruiting to find planners to our district) and how we ensure we can deliver what we set out in our Corporate Plan.

We still need to maintain basic reserves and ensure we have sufficient money to be here over the next five years – all of which are legal requirements, rightly so.  Our budget, which comes to the council in February, will do all of that. I would recommend you look at our Cabinet meeting to see what our Statutory Finance Officer had to say about it. As the former leader of the Opposition, it was very easy to say what I wouldn't do and have an opinion as I didn't have to worry about the realities of making a budget work. But it's much harder now I am the leader - I know what is prudent and the right thing to do - even when I know it might not be popular!  

As a family our new year's resolution has been to look at what food waste we currently put in our green bin and think about how we can reduce this. I've got better at meal planning and I have noticed that the overall amount we put in the bin is decreasing. I've also been on the Love Food Hate Waste website to see what else I could do. This is better for the planet and our household finances – we all need to reduce food waste and, to steal a well-known supermarket's catchphrase, 'every little helps' (other supermarkets are available!!)

HDC can still reclaim food waste that isn't composted and ends up in the black bin, but reducing it overall is better for everyone. HDC will be introducing food waste collections, but significant delays in government funding to support this have meant we've needed to wait to know if we will receive new burdens funding to offset the financial impact of doing so (it's a non-chargeable service which will be required in future). I can't wait to be able to get on and do it.

The new year was again marked by flooding - as I write this, we have flooding again in our area. It worries me that this is becoming increasingly common, yet many households in at-risk locations seem underprepared. There is help available with the County Council offering money for community flood groups, the ability to report blocked drains online and our own website signposting the things that can be done to protect homes and livelihoods. It also focuses the mind on all the work we are doing on environmental sustainability. This week, we have been discussing how we can help those building our future new homes think better about how they can help reduce our impact on the planet.  And for those already noticing the green shoots of this year's daffodils, we have launched more help for communities to find spaces to support increased biodiversity.

So there we are. There is always so much more I could talk about, but if you follow us on social media, you'll be updated with the news as we share it. Remember, you can watch all our pre-decision-making scrutiny and decision-making on YouTube.  Until next month, Sarah.

I've jumped straight to September and October as I took a proper break with my family over the summer. We were determined to celebrate life after my husband's health scare and travel Route 66 in a camper van - a holiday of a lifetime. It was a time of family bonding, laughter, exploration and freedom. These times remind us of what is important to us and what feeds our souls, and makes us reflect on what matters and refreshes us, too. A week in a tent in West Sussex reminded me that for all the excitement of something unfamiliar and exotic, there is something magical about the simple pleasures of being outdoors in the wind and rain at a place I have visited for years, and catching up with my extended family.

Whilst I couldn't put the phone down and entirely switch off whilst I was away, as the political world never sleeps, I did return refreshed with a new sense of perspective. I had found time to reflect on what we had achieved so far and what we still wanted to achieve in the next two and a half years. I returned energised and excited, knowing that the time between late summer and Christmas is always a pivotal one. It's when we start to look ahead towards the new financial year. We review budgets and plan for the next year. We review corporate performance, check trajectories and set new targets. It's when we look to reset goals for the year ahead to ensure the important things get done. It's a time of looking forward, planning and focusing on making a difference.

September came and went in a flash, as did October! I looked at the progress we had made so far against our Joint Administration Agreement and then at our 'Do, Enable and Influence' message within our Corporate Plan. It's far more than the green bins, which seem to have taken on a life of its own. We are making strong progress in managing the council's finances back into a stable position. We have a balanced budget, commented on as 'remarkable', and a Medium Term Financial Strategy for the next five years that addresses the £8m deficit that we started with as a new administration. It has meant tough decisions we would not have taken were it not about the money, but the council agreed on budget principles, and we have stuck with them.

  • Protect front-line services to our most vulnerable people to avoid individuals or families falling into crisis through our continued approaches built on prevention and early intervention

  • Deliver a balanced budget, using our savings in the short term to insulate the residents of Huntingdonshire from service cuts due to global market issues

  • Balance the need for fees, charges and tax increases with the demands on our services, our community's ability to pay and central government's certainty over funding

  • Look to make further pushes towards a more efficient council, maximising the use of technology and ensuring returns on investments where the council uses its own money

  • Pause commercial investment activity in the short term while the market instability continues, but we will consider other options

  • Have regard for the things that the community tell us are important in setting out our budget proposals.

As we enter this year's budget preparation, we know we won't know what funding the government will provide until Christmas Eve (I joke not). What the economy will do, how many new incoming residents we'll have, displaced by war or seeking asylum, how many new homeless people will need accommodation or what changes the government may announce that affect our financial planning. Changes to waste collections being a moot point.

We know that we have a pay settlement to reach with our staff, assets still in need of work and that 80% of the budget will go on delivering "business as usual". We know that the financial planning we inherited required a year-on-year Council Tax charge of a 3% increase and that we have to deliver everything within that and ensure our basic reserves remain above the minimum threshold.

We must look at how we ensure the remaining 20% of our budget makes the biggest impact possible, continue to push for savings and hope for unexpected windfalls. November and December will be a busy time. We have a fantastic staff and councillor team working hard to ensure we are there for you and will provide a budget in early spring that ensures we deliver our priorities.

I have no idea where June went, so this is June and July combined!

This month I was in the lovely position to be able to reflect on our first year in administration and was privileged to report back on all the council has achieved. The State of the District Speech has been recorded for posterity and the lovely video that accompanied it speaks of how we want to be able to share the fantastic work our council staff do on behalf of the public. It's a real celebration of the work each person does each day and the work of ward councillors too. You can watch the live stream recording on YouTube.

It's easy to get wrapped up in what we do and not take time to step back and reflect on where we have been and are going. In doing so I realise just how far we have evolved how the council works. We have moved from being an organised one focused on just what we can do alone, to one that recognises we can only have an impact if we also work with partners to enable them to succeed for our residents and businesses and influence others who can bring more to the party that we can achieve alone.

Do, Enable and Influence has become the cornerstone of what we now do and is enshrined in our new Corporate Plan. It's all about how we work brighter to have a better impact. Our resources alone will not achieve all we aspire to, and we are ambitious for the future. Please take time to look at our Corporate Plan and the videos.

You'll also see that in line with our approach to making things more accessible, you can also follow how we are performing against our key indicators. By knowing what's working as expected, or better than expected, we can do more of it. When we don’t get the performance, we expect we can seek to make changes, change direction and stop if appropriate. We are open to the fact that sometimes things happen which are unexpected, and that performance improves when we know what is happening and are adept enough to make changes as needed.

I want to thank everyone who has been part of the journey over the last year. We did not expect to form a Joint Administration as we entered the elections. Working across 4 political groups, including a large group of independent councillors, is not an easy proposition, but I can genuinely say that it has been a pleasure to do so. Each person in the group has willingly brought their perspectives and enthusiasm, challenge, and ideas to the task at hand and we work hard to find common ground in everything we do.

We are so successful that the perception that we 'whip' everyone to agree on every decision could not be further from the truth. We have some tough decisions ahead as we manage with less resource than we would like, but we remain 100% committed to staff and residents in all we do.

For many families, when someone is unexpectedly ill it can be a real challenge to face and even more so when it's life-threatening. This month, like many families who find themselves in this position, I juggled my professional and personal life as my husband had a life-saving surgery. It's at times like this when we remember what really matters, and are grateful to those who can offer a lifeline when it's needed. I am truly grateful that we have world-class health services on our doorstep and will be forever grateful to Papworth Royal Hospital and its staff. I'm delighted to report that he's making a strong recovery and life in the Conboy household is thankfully returning to normality.

This has reminded me that we can be navigating life's smooth waters, thinking it's all going swimmingly when suddenly we can encounter turbulence and find ourselves in difficulty. As a council determining our corporate priorities, we set out that we would support people in a crisis and work hard to keep them out of a crisis.

Fortunately, we did not need the council's crisis offer but we would have benefited from the work we are pushing forward on health and well-being. We are reaching out to health to promote opportunities to improve health for our residents.

One Leisure offers a wide variety of free classes to help people improve their fitness. Swimming, Pilates, yoga, cycling and more for all age groups, including teenagers.

We've also launched a Health Inequalities project, thanks to funding from the Integrated Care System to support neighbourhood schemes and offer support in communities.

We have an Active for Health programme with a free 12-week course that includes 90 days of free access to One Leisure, while our Undefeatables Programme supports those with long-term health conditions to move more.

So, if you are reading this and wondering how you do more to take care of yourself and your loved ones and stay out of a crisis, do take the time to view our wide range of health and well-being support on offer.

Here is my first blog! I wanted to give you an insight into what it's like at Huntingdonshire District Council. The timing worked perfectly as I was due to visit our Operations Team, and this would provide the perfect opportunity to share a little about the wonderful work these teams do for our residents.

The 13 April was an early start and although I arrived early, I had just missed our refuse crews who were out early collecting blue bins across Huntingdonshire… So I'll be back to catch up with them in the coming months.

I did get to meet our green bins crews before they headed out and heard about the great work they have been doing in terms of exceeding our previous collection targets. Being the first week after Easter and a bank holiday, they were expecting many gardeners to have cut the grass and for collections to be busy, needing several visits to the waste centre as lorries may require up to three lots of emptying!

The Street Cleaning Team were also expecting to be busy, regrettably. We still have dog owners that don’t pick up after their dogs and the windy weather can mean more rubbish to pick up than usual.

Our Commercial Waste Services Team were preparing for another busy day. We provide commercial waste collection and skip services as part of our expanding portfolio.

The Open Spaces Team were taking out mowers and strimmers to begin first cuts and were off to mark pitches on our playing fields. We were taking new bins out to new residents and those who pay for additional bins. These men and women are the very public face of HDC in their fluoro jackets and I'm grateful for their hard work.

Behind the scenes, other teams enable our crews to do their work. We have a pristine workshop that ensures every vehicle is fit to be on the road and is in great working order.

We hold a top-class standard for the maintenance we carry out. We can refuel on site currently and are actively exploring how we can take on alternatively fueled vehicles in future to meet our carbon-zero commitments.

We have busy managers and state-of-the-art tracking on our vehicles to support how we deploy crews on their rounds. This enables crews to help each other to achieve daily collection targets.

I met with our Open Spaces Team and our resident tree specialist. We have been busy planting new trees and maintaining a vast number of trees across the district. Each new tree needs to be watered and nurtured, and then our mature trees need to be maintained to keep them in good health.

Every tree is precious, but a lifetime of maintenance is a never-ending commitment. Occasionally, we have to lose trees as part of building new homes. I got to see a huge swathe of cherry trees planted as a new avenue on the Oxmoor, part of a planning agreement that replaced an old tree lost to development.

The new planting also includes spring bulbs, and a summer wildflower border is already enhancing the space visually and will, in time, increase our biodiversity. This is also an objective behind our decision to leave some of the verges we usually cut to grow this year.

We will be signing these areas and counting biodiversity before and after the growing season. Residents will be able to find out the difference this has made as the project moves forward.

I met our Active Lifestyles Team, who bring health-related physical activities to our communities. They were planning their year and were full of enthusiasm for the new work they have in their sights.

I then met our Enforcement Team – ever in demand, this small team helps us with all of our enforcement issues and provides our pest control service. They do case work for my residents, and I know they are much appreciated by those they assist.

I rounded off the visit to the CCTV suite, seeing how we keep residents safe in our market towns, and further afield as we offer our services to Cambridge City too. Our cameras provide crystal clear pictures and enable operators to support police, blue light services, and town centre managers to respond to emergencies day and night. Only recently the team saved a man's life by spotting him in the river at night and directing rescue teams to his location.

These teams provide valued services to our residents, and I am personally thankful for their efforts to keep Huntingdonshire running smoothly, looking great and staying safe. When you next see them out and about give them a wave and when we provide a service do let them know how much you appreciate their work - it does make a difference.