Congratulations to David Lee, the new Leader of Wokingham Borough Council. He takes on an important job at a difficult time nationally, with people feeling the pressure from their household bills and the sharp increases in the costs of food, fuel and motoring. He inherits a Council from Frank Browne which has performed well in the national local government league tables for value for money, has backed some good schools, with a strong Conservative majority that can get things done for the District.
David has promised to involve and value all the Councillors in the Group, and to use their abilities. This is important, as all Councillors have an equal mandate from their electors and have a contribution to make. He sees his job as orchestrating the talents rather than running a major portfolio himself, which is a wise call. There is quite enough to do, motivating, encouraging and advising the members in their different tasks without trying to run a department as well.
He wants to cut down the number of meetings, to give Councillors and officers more time to get on with their jobs, and to ensure meetings are focused on proper examination of the crucial decisions that need to be taken at member level. This should save money as well as time, and is to be welcomed.
The first priority has to be to control the Council Tax. The new Leader has rightly stressed the need for a low tax, as people are very stretched in their household budgets and have not enjoyed the way the government has used the Council Tax as a Stealth Tax, requiring more of local government without giving the grants to pay for it all. Central to achieving this will be the performance of the relatively new Chief Executive, Susan Law, the highest paid public servant in our area, and her relationship with the new Leader and majority Group.
Councillors will probably ask her to prepare a budget based on no increase over inflation. I think she can do better than this. She would be wise to come back with a lower Council Tax proposal based on further reductions in the overhead and reductions in less useful expenditure. Much of the overhead cost is imposed by responding to government and following government advice. The Council should move onto a policy of minimum compliance to stay within the law, but declining to spend money on advisory matters from government or chasing ring fenced grants when we do not agree with the underlying purpose of the policy or scheme.
Council officers during the Labour years in many other Councils around the country have tended to try to run Labour style Councils in their own career interests. They should now sense the change of mood, and seek to help Conservatives implement their approach, which is to deliver good school and social care by devolving as much power and money to each institution as possible, curbing the central bureaucracy. We do not need armies of networkers, co-ordinators and the like, and should have in place a staff freeze on administrative posts. Leave running the Health Service to the NHS, and keep selling the surplus assets.
At a time when private sector Chief Executives are seeing their salaries and bonus packages fall by an average 16% because their performance is falling in difficult times, it would be a good idea to make sure that our top local officers also have a financial incentive to deliver more for less as the private sector has to do to survive. Councillors were impressed with Susan law when they appointed her. My message to her, is to help the new Leader deliver what Wokingham people really want â€“ good core services, no expensive extras, and a lower Council Tax.
If at the same time she can convert Peach Place development into action, and can find a way through the redevelopment of the tatty structures on Elms field without destroying the open space amenity, she will earn her large salary.