Wexton Town Council – May 2015

Wexton Town Council

Speech of the Incoming Town Mayor, David Sander, to the AGM 5th May 2015

(Check against podcast)

I feel a tremendous privilege to stand here today as Town Mayor for Wexton, and a sobering responsibility.  The last four years have been incredibly active for our town council and our community and before setting out my own vision for the council for the next year, I’d like just to reflect on the journey over which we have travelled.

It has become fashionable to date the start of our progress to the winning of the Quality Council in 2006.  That award, in theory at least, accredited us as being capable of doing more and may well have started to till the ground into which later seeds could fall and grow.  However I think that the critical steps really came with the election of the first coalition government in 2010 combined with the fortunate appointment of Sally Tudor as our Town Clerk in 2011.  Looking back on it from here, recruiting as our town clerk someone with private sector services procurement experience who had worked as a senior procurement and partnerships officer in a District Council may seem uncommonly prescient.  At the time, and I speak as one of those on the appointment panel, we were mostly impressed by her exceptionally strong community links and manifest organisational skills.

The first signs of the new Town Council came about during the great expenditure retrenchment of 2011.  Sally and the Town Councillors at the time put forward a compelling proposition to take over the threatened Library from the County Council, and we created the Wexton Community Interest Company, our CIC.  Again with hindsight it is possible to see that this gave us not only a community hub in the form of the actual library, but also, through the CIC itself, a vehicle for doing things in different ways.

The CIC threw itself into redefining library service provision – one thinks here of the fabulous homework clubs, the late night opening supported by our many volunteers who commute and who couldn’t normally access the library in the evenings,  and the active breakfast club which has been a boon to working parents, and which consistently makes money that reduces our precept.

I think it was realising how the breakfast club could work that started to get the CIC Board thinking about other commercial opportunities.  The county council was well into what it chose to call the “personalisation agenda” in those days and so a number of older residents were getting their personal budgets to spend on homecare, cleaning and so on.  We picked up that they were generally dissatisfied at the lack of choices they had, and at the same time we knew that there were pockets of underutilised capacity in our population and a group of people who were very prepared for caring work on a very flexible working basis.  We formed the Wexton Carebank and actively promoted it to encourage people into the care market.  We helped them register as companies if that’s how they wanted to do it, or we engaged people directly.  I’m happy to say that we now know that the vast majority of care is provided from within Wexton community itself, which has proven to be a real contributor to community spirit, as well as being a boon in the snow as it meant that we weren’t dependent on people coming from out of town to help out.

Talking of snow, I’m sure that like the rest of the country we’d have had worse problems during 2013’s “white-out winter” if we hadn’t had our snow-shovel give-away the summer before.  Kindly supported by the District and County Councils and Sponsored by Jacksons Hardware  we put over 2000 snow shovels in the hands of the community, and although we have deep suspicions about some eBay transactions that year it was clear that there were still a good number out there when we got to the White-out. The Great Grit Giveaway in November 2012 clearly helped too – Sally managed to persuade the District Council to have the refuse trucks drop a 15 kilo bag of grit at every household that wanted one.  There was much less evidence on eBay for that!

But that’s the small stuff: emboldened by our early successes we used the Localism Bill’s Right to Challenge sometimes with, and then eventually without, the support of our District and County Colleagues,  to bring our services closer to Wexton.  Road repairs are now carried out based on local priorities and discussion – sometimes lengthy, but based on the priority that came from consultation which said that people particularly wanted their children’s journeys to be safe.  Potholes on local cycle routes and outside schools get priority treatment now.  We took over the customer contact provision for all council services because we knew we could make it more relevant for local people. Many people here tonight will I know have been made aware of the power of a well-functioning town council by their “Welcome to Wexton” pack and home visit which means that in one record breaking instance a new resident was fully signed up for a school, voting, doctors surgery, dentist, library, breakfast club, and an evening class – I believe it was Salsa dancing –  within an hour of first plugging in their kettle.  The level of commercial sponsorship from local businesses and the rather impressive number of introductory offers for new residents have made this a very nice little earner for the council.  The CIC’s commercialisation and franchising of that idea in partnership with a conglomerate of local newspapers remains one of the reasons why we are the only Town Council with a negative precept.  People love the idea of being – in effect – paid to live here!  We are told that the warmth of our welcome was a significant factor behind the decision of Research Software Ltd  to open their cornerstone campus building on the technology park we own.

Clearly the biggest steps came last year when we took over the local cottage hospital as the base for our group of GPs, our Wexton Weight Watch programme, the natural birth centre and our rather innovative rehabilitation and respite care centre.  That, and sponsoring our schools as academies dedicated to Civic Society has meant that more than 75% of public money spent in Wexton is now spent through the Town Council.  Combined with taking on registrations and adding this to the cemeteries which we have always run led one wag who came to study us for a management project describing our plan as being to “backwards integrate up the supply chain working from our core competence in cemetery management”!  I think I know what that means!

Perhaps the thing that makes me most proud in standing here today is the terrific mandate the Town Council now has; our meetings are packed, our crowdsourcing is invariably incredibly well contributed to, we have five times more Twitter followers than actually live in Wexton! The 80% turnout in last year’s Town Council elections was pretty good, but personally I’d like to see it higher.

So turning at last to my own vision for the next year, I think that we risk falling into the trap of much larger councils who focus on the services they run -much as I have just done in describing our history – rather than the people they serve.  So next year we will be running our “Wexton and Me” initiative.  We’ll be meeting every family individually to chat about how they feel about the Town, what they can contribute to it, and what they may feel they need from us.  A major service company is working with us to do this – it won’t cost you anything – and as well as matching up contributions and needs they will be making a joined up case to reduce our costs, and those of the other public service providers, still further.  But more than this I want us to look beyond Wexton – we love this town and part of why we do is that there are so many wonderful people who are healthy, capable and equipped to help each other.  Not all towns are like this.  As we debated at length at the recent strategy meeting we want to find ways of spreading our special experiences to other communities, with the ones that can afford to pay us for some our ideas doing just that, but actively helping others, either with our time or our ideas.  I know from the strength of that debate that you want us to do this, and I shall be proud to work with our excellent staff team, and my fellow Councillors on our “Made in Wexton, Remade for You” programme.

This speech – and the podcast – is now quite long enough, I thank you for your attention, and for your vote in me as your leader -and servant – for the next year.

8 Comments Add yours

  1. Mel Usher says:

    Jonathan. Great blog. Want to help a town council really try and achieve this?

    We are a group of independents (IFF, Independents for Frome) who got together Jan 2011 to challenge the staus quo. With no outside help and using techniques like flashmobbing we achieved 9000 votes and a healthy majority much to the chagrin of the Cons/Lib Dems. We have a very interesting set of councillors, some years ago for example I was CEO of The IDEA. Our supporters/partners also contain a fair number of people with new ideas. We are not a party as such but you can pick up our philosophy on http://www.iffrome.org.uk which we used during the election process. We are just now getting our thoughts togther for the next 4 years so we would love to hear from you.
    Mel Usher


    1. jonathanflowers says:

      Mel – don’t know if you got my email – but certainly happy to chat …


  2. Helen Fudge says:

    Hi! Jonathan,

    Thoroughly enjoyed “seeing into the future” at “Wexton Town Council”! Your blog presents an intriguing picture of the potential development path towards localism at the level of democracy that is closest to many (but not all) communities. As the logical conclusion of localism is diversity, we can expect to see methods, costs and standards of service delivery vary increasingly between different communities. This shift will take time, and is likely to involve significant change and some tough choices on the horizon for town and parish councils. The financial pressures facing principal authorities suggest that there will be precious little time for parishes to explore the opportunities for devolution and to build their capacity ahead of 2012/13 budget decisions.

    I shall be interested to find out about the latest developments in Frome, so do let me know if you’re following up on Mel’s invitation!

    Best wishes,



  3. jonathanflowers says:

    At a fascinating talk by Paddington Community Development Trust this week re their bid to become a parish council with precept-raising powers. Definitely one to watch


  4. jonathanflowers says:

    Noting that quite a few people seem to be reading this post I have just tidied up a few of the more obvious typos….


  5. David Lewis says:

    Jonathon, have been trying to see if is possible for a parish council to actually set a negative precept. I am being told by the officers of the unitary authority that there is no provision in the local government act for this.

    My parish council has reserves of 10 times what it spends annually. If it wanted to return this money to parishioners it would reduce the council tax for one year on a band d property by around £50. The unitary authority says this cant be done as there is no provision in the local government act for setting a negative precept.

    I tried ringing Eric Pickles department for advice and they said there is nothing in the local government act which says you can’t.

    Interested to hear your view.


    1. jonathanflowers says:

      I’m afraid I have nothing special to offer on this one, the concept of a negative precept was meant simply to illustrate a point without being checked for possibility!

      Could you issue a voucher to every household, perhaps something that could only be redeemed in local shops, and so boost the local economy a bit?


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