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On Wednesday evening I attended the Local Council Assembly at the Town Hall. This annual event brings together Councillors, Officers and members of Town and Parish Councils for a sort of 'State of the Union' evening.
There is no doubt that Cheshire West and Chester is a council that has embraced wholeheartedly the need for change. It is one of a small number of councils that is participating in a range of new initiatives and pilot studies to develop and test new methods of delivering services. Perhaps because the Council is only 5 years old, it has been able to be more creative in building new traditions. They have been a turbulent 5 years, with over £114 million being taken from the budget and with a reduction of another £49 million to be found in the next 3 years.
The message that was emphasised by both Steve Robinson the Chief Executive and Councillors Mike Jones and Lyn Riley was that new ways of delivering all services have to be found. 'Rewiring Services' was how it was put. Working closely with other organisations, out-sourcing, creating stand- alone companies or handing over assets to others, have all been looked at and the results of some of these changes are starting to be felt. Certainly the mood was more optimistic than last year as changes get established and start producing results.
At the Parish Council level there was a plea to start defining local solutions to local problems and for communities to try new things. Frodsham PC recently created a podcast of their meeting and had 250 people tuned in. To hear the suggestion that 'crowd-sourcing' might be a way to raise funds for parish projects is both shocking and challenging, but this kind of fresh thinking will be needed if future funding gaps are to be closed.
It is obvious that CW&C staff have been under great pressure in the last few years and this is unlikely to change. I sometimes wonder if this pressure on managers to constantly change, adapt and improve means that they forget to manage what should be happening on the ground today — who is actually emptying the bins on Tarvin High Street? Are these new initiatives ever given the time to bed in and work before they are changed again? I used to work for Cheshire County Council — I don't think I would recognise CW&C as the same service.
The key element in CW&C's plan to keep the funding gap filled is to go for growth, a strategy which will create jobs and make all of us healthier and richer, thus increasing the tax base and reducing demand for services. It was described as 'risky but real'. Getting users to pay for more services and a healthy voluntary sector are also part of the plan. It will be interesting to see how far this progresses in the nest year.
NB, These are my personal views and not those of Tarvin Parish Council