Cotswold District Council’s Jenny Poole talks about the challenges of delivering for everyone and creating vibrant communities in a rural district.
Cotswold District Council is one of the most consistent performers across all categories in the Vibrant Economy Index. That comes, in part, because we recognise the connections that exist between the different baskets.
Take elderly people. Making sure they aren't isolated boosts a sense of ‘community, trust and belonging’ and promotes ‘health and wellbeing’. It also drives ‘inclusion and equality’, the basket focused on ensuring everyone benefits from economic growth. That’s three Vibrant Economy Index categories affected by a single area of focus for the council.
We also work hard to engage with stakeholders and understand the views of everyone affected by what the council does. That means we can do the best for the district as a whole, rather than meeting the needs of just one group. We try to listen, engage and work collaboratively.
Cotswold District Council's aim is to be the most efficient council in the country. We have recently launched a new company to provide our services (Publica) while we retain decision-making over policy and service provision to meet the specific needs of our place. The company is owned by this council and three of our partners (West Oxfordshire District Council, Forest of Dean District council and Cheltenham borough council). The new company will help us to achieve savings through economies of scale, provide resilience by joining our services and provide access to a wider range of expertise. In the future, we will also be looking to maximise trading opportunities through our company.
The council’s priorities are to: provide council tax payers with high-quality services at the lowest possible cost; protect and enhance the local environment while supporting economic growth; and champion the issues that are important to local people. In these aims, we are probably similar to many other councils. But we face specific pressures that come from being a rural district too.
However, to do that we’ve debated internally which indicators we measure, based on what our members think are the most important. They cover things like how quickly are we responding to council tax and housing benefit support claims? How quickly are we processing planning applications? How do we perform around waste and recycling? How do we compare nationally for cost of services per head of population, or for council tax?
Our measures and the Vibrant Economy Index measures tie up. While the index provides a view across a place, ours look at the next level down and how we as an organisation start to wrestle with some of the issues and challenges around that.
Balancing economy and environment
The tension between protecting the Cotswolds environment and growing the economy is the first of these pressures. On this, we work closely with the county and the local enterprise partnership to make sure initiatives supporting economic development in places like Cheltenham, Gloucester, Stroud and Tewkesbury work for our area too. We are also a partner in Gloucestershire 2050, which is a county-wide conversation exploring ideas and shaping the future of Gloucestershire.
Tourism is an important part of our local economy. So we have lots of small businesses and lots of entrepreneurial people, many of them working from home. Good broadband is essential. We've invested to increase the availability of superfast broadband and have seen a rise in people working from home as a result. We also support the local destination management organisation – now almost self-funding – providing guaranteed funding for visitor information centres and facilities for charging electric vehicles. We are looking to expand the number of charging points both to support our local residents who will increasingly use electric vehicles and to enable visitors to visit our local tourist attractions.
Access to the M5 is also important, for people travelling or commuting and for businesses moving goods. A particular pinch point is where the A417 drops to a single carriageway for a short section, causing long delays and creating air pollution. We've lobbied to get that section changed to dual carriageway and this is now one of Highways England's priority projects.
Another local challenge is car parking, particularly in Cirencester, where demand outstrips supply. Businesses complain about a shortage of spaces impacting upon their customers, so we’ve introduced a ‘free after 3’ initiative to manage car parking demand and maximise capacity and footfall for the town using the available infrastructure. To support the economy further, we’re considering putting in car parks with several decks, but local residents are concerned about the impact on their homes. We're working to try to balance everyone’s needs.
Protecting the Cotswolds
Planning is a huge issue. Around 70% of the district is classified as an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty. We also have 6,000 listed buildings and 144 conservation areas. The area has many second or holiday homes and property prices are high. The average house price is now 11.15 times the average wage.
High property prices suggest a prosperous area, but on the index we have an ‘average ranking’ for prosperity. This is because the district has a mix of well-off and deprived communities. Getting on the housing ladder is almost impossible now and there’s enormous demand for affordable housing. We’re currently finalising our local plan, setting out where future housing growth will be.
We have a big site in Cirencester with outline planning permission for 2,350 homes. These will be built in stages over the next 10 years. The plans include school and community centre provision and looks to build an effective community trust to maximise community involvement and connectivity with the town as a whole.
Building communities and supporting the third sector
Our rural district has just under 85,000 people spread over 450 square miles. Low population density means lots of isolated communities and this affects the cost of providing services. Since the floods in 2007, we’ve worked hard to help communities build their own resilience, so they can be self-sufficient if they’re cut off by snow or flooding. This has included setting up neighbourhood champions to organise the community response.
We don't underestimate the contribution the third sector makes, especially in rural areas. We have proactive voluntary organisations that help our elderly population in particular. These organisations provide community bus facilities or a community transport network so that people in rural communities can access local services, such as doctors.
We tend to be an enabler, putting people in touch with organisations that can help them. We've been careful to protect funding streams for voluntary organisations as best we can, despite funding cuts. We guarantee their funding streams for three years to give them some certainty.