A report on progress by the Labour-led Coalition-run Swale Borough Council by its Leader, Roger Truelove.
In May 2019, Labour Councillors formed a coalition administration with four other groups. The other groups and their leaders are
Swale Independents Mike Baldock
Independents Monique Bonney
Liberal Democrats Ben Martin
Green Party Tim Valentine
The five-party coalition is as loyal and supportive of each other, as any one-party administration has ever been.
The Conservatives formed an opposition after very many years of exclusive control and they continue to find it difficult to find the right tone, alternating quite markedly between constructive opposition and a petty nit-picking opposition for its own sake.
The coalition had clear aims from the start and have started on their delivery, all with the intention of improving Swale. Throughout our first 20 months we have managed without a Chief Officer and over the last nine months progress has naturally been slowed, as our resources and concentration has diverted to the Covid crisis.
However, we are determined to move forward with our ten priorities.
- We entered office with a public very concerned about the path being taken by the Conservatives on Local planning. The prospect of possibly four massive “garden communities” in our countryside was alarming to many. Pressed by Government to increase the housing allocations for Swale by over 9000, we have worked to review the plan in a much more sensitive way, without losing control of local planning as a punishment for not conforming to Government targets. This review should be completed in the first half of this year.
- We have finalised a policy for economic improvement that stresses the need to give more support to local businesses, works with others to improve skills and lobbies government to attract more investment into Swale. Part of the plan is to improve the economic and cultural viability of our town centres. We ended the Tory Council’s agreement with the Spirit of Sittingbourne which we saw as a potential future burden to Swale residents. We inherited the financially risky phase one plan and we have worked to bring improvements to that but in the current climate we have to hope that the leisure area soon becomes operational so that we can start to pay back on the Conservative borrowing.
- Our priority for housing has been to provide more affordable housing in the borough. We are squeezing more out of the planning system but crucially we have set up a Local Housing Company which in the years ahead will meet the gap in the market for affordable housing. We have also prioritised getting rough sleepers safely off the streets and finding more temporary accommodation for those suddenly made homeless.
- There is much to be proud of in Swale’s heritage and culture. We have already funded projects. We want to see more local people and visitors enjoying our sites of historical interest. The visitor economy is vital to the future of Swale’s local prosperity.
- When taking office, we felt too little attention had been paid to the impact of Council policies on people’s health and well-being. Active and fulfilling recreational pastimes are as important to people’s health as taking medicinal drugs. That is why we restored concessionary parking at our leisure centres, made grants to the Faversham pools and are taking steps to make our parks and open spaces better places to visit.
- Swale needs improvements to its public places and public facilities. The coalition set up a Projects Fund to make improvements to the public realm. There are more benches in our parks, there are new toilets where people visit andthere will be improvements in our town centres. Community assets have been improved and funding has been put into the agenda for environmental improvements.
- Another neglected area in the past has been the lack of engagement with those organisations in the community who work to help people in need. There are now much stronger links with the voluntary sector and the coalition council has close connections with the main foodbank providers. There is too much inequality in Swale and social inclusion will continue to be a high priority. As a Council, we raised all our employees to the real living wage as an example to all local employers.
- When we took office, we adopted a climate change and biodiversity agenda. This is a high-level target driven programme that takes initiatives on air quality, tree planting and electric vehicles, for example, but also monitors council decisions for their impact on carbon emissions.
- We cannot pursue these objectives unless we also maintain sound financial management. Even in the current circumstances, the Council budget is sound and will remain so. For example, we inherited a failing waste contract which has to be replaced in two years’ time. Improving the current contract will cost more but we will find the necessary savings to sustain a better service for local people.
- And finally, all coalition parties want to change to the way decisions are made and to engage much better with the local community. Area Committees are now up and running and over the next two years we will bring in changes to release some of the executive power away from the cabinet, to share policy development more fully with all our councillors. We have also seen an improvement in Council meetings, which used to be an ego trip for the Leader with little opportunity for most Councillors to speak as representatives. Most meetings now have two motions of interest. The last meeting saw agreement across parties to limit the nuisance caused by excessive firework parties and agreement on a Labour sponsored motion to press the government to keep the £20 uplift on Universal credit after it is due to run out in April.
With our excellent Coalition partners, we are making a real difference. Being a Labour Councillor enables the 11 of us to make a real contribution to our local area, But, 9 of us are men and none of us exactly young. Do consider putting yourself forward as Labour candidates when the election next comes round in 2023. In some ways, there has never been a greater need for good dedicated people.
Labour Leader and Council Leader on Swale Borough Council