Ellie Chowns – starting as a County Councillor

I’ve been in post as Ward Councillor for Bishops Frome and Cradley for about 6 weeks now, and it’s been a busy time, Christmas and New Year notwithstanding (Happy 2018 everyone!). In addition to a series of formal induction meetings and training sessions, I’ve been busy learning about Council business in a range of other ways, including: attending / observing several Cabinet and Committee meetings; introducing myself to all the other councillors and having one-to-ones with as many of them as possible from all parties; getting to know the Planning officers (very important, as there are a number of high-public-interest planning issues in my ward); making contact with the Highways department and with Balfour Beatty about several local roads issues; and attending Parish Council meetings in Cradley, Bishops Frome and Avenbury, as well as meeting several members of Acton Beauchamp Group Parish Council. I’ve done four site visits regarding planning issues at the request of local residents, and have followed up on them all with the planners – two have been redirected to Planning Committee, as the residents hoped. And I’ve attended the Bingo at Bishops Frome, and the Christmas Fair at Cradley!

I see my role as having two key elements really. The first is being an effective and accountable advocate for residents on issues they care about. So far, about people have contacted me mainly about planning issues, about road repair / maintenance / gritting etc, and about broadband access. I’ve followed up on them all and I aim to get even quicker as I get to grips with exactly who does what in the council. So far I’ve had 20 contacts (mainly email, some phone) from residents with various enquiries; of these I’m still working on addressing five, and several others are pending parish council or planning committee meetings.

The other part of my role is about contributing a Green perspective on Council work more widely – hopefully, helping it be more effective, transparent, and Green! I’m going to be focusing on three areas in particular in 2018: 1) sustainable transport, 2) adult wellbeing and social care, and 3) sustainable investment. On this last point, the Council is in the middle of selling off its council farms and I understand will get >£35m from doing so; it plans to invest this with a ‘Development Partner’ in the hope of yielding long-term benefits for the County. There are both risks and opportunities involved… I’m going to take a very close interest in these plans to try to ensure that they offer real benefits, are good value for money, and are sustainable in every sense of the work. I will keep you posted!

One final point for today. At the Cabinet meeting I attended this morning, councillors discussed the Cabinet’s proposals on next year’s Council Tax rate, and on the Capital Investment Programme. These will go to Full Council in 2 weeks’ time (Friday 26 January) and I’ll report back then in more detail. The Cabinet proposes to increase council tax by 4.9% (including a 2% social care precept). Clearly, when many people are struggling to make ends meet and wages are stagnant, any increase in Council Tax is going to be unpopular. At the same time, we simply have to pay for the vital local services councils provide – and demand for those services is increasing all the time. I don’t think most people realise that the largest share of the Council’s money is spent on adult social care (I think it’s about 60% – I’ll post some more details on this in a future post). Personally I believe social care should be funded on a national basis in the same way as the NHS, not via Council Tax. But while we fight that long battle for a better approach to funding social care, we need to do the very best we can to deliver good services locally with the resources we have and to care for the most vulnerable in our communities.

Please let me know if you’d like more detail on any of the issues I’ve touched on here, and please use this forum to engage in conversation on what you’d like me to do as your Councillor.

6 comments

  1. Thank you for this Ellie. As a past H.C. agricultural tenant I am sceptical about anything that the council will do with the proceeds of the property sell off. Although I cannot accuse officers or councillors of bribery, there seem to have been cases where retired individuals somehow become elected to the boards of businesses that have gained financially from council projects. Whereas this may just be a malicious story, the tale of the two Phillip Greens and the ability of the big boys to rip off the smaller individuals is something that should be guarded against. If the council long term had wanted to invest properly in the future it would have put that forward thinking into developing the county for what it is, a beautiful and historic and relatively unspoilt rural landscape.

    1. Thanks for your comment Jeff. I can sympathise with your frustration, esp. given your background as an HC farm tenant, and I agree it’s really important to guard against any potential risk of decisions being made that are not 100% motivated by an objective assessment of the public good. That’s why I want to look into this more carefully. I can’t do anything now about the past decisions – but I can try to make sure that there’s more transparency and effective scrutiny going forward. Wish me luck!

  2. Well done, Ellie,
    Really interesting and thought-provoking to read of your early encounters, perspectives and actions as a Herefordshire Councillor. As a twin hatter in neighbouring Worcestershire, I am in very much the same context, trying to achieve much the same objectives and facing much the same challenges.
    Keeping in touch and sharing our learning and ideas will be mutually helpful, I feel sure. I have just spent this morning on a budget scrutiny session (the second I have participated in this fortnight) and it is now clear to me that although Worcs CC have a three year budgeting programme (medium term financial plan) even the numbers fir cuts for the fast approaching financial year (2018-19) are far from certain or specific – are really only aspirational or wishful initial ideas and possibilities. Indeed, there have been some significant under-runs in relation to budget reductions that were planned for this current year. Increasingly, it seems to me that budget-setting is fictional and an optimistic attempt to give the impression of being ‘in control ‘ when actually the council is getting into really deep water and with unsustainable finances. I absolutely agree that adult social care should be funded nationally as with the NHS. But sadly that isn’t likely to happen under this government.
    In such a financial climate that Worcs now finds itself, it seems harder than ever to pursue a greening strategy.
    But best wishes
    John R

    1. Thanks John. Yes, it can seem pretty demoralising times to be involved in local government when austerity has slashed budgets, yet local needs are continuing to grow. You have many years’ experience of course, and I am still a newbie… But we both know there are many ‘green’ ideas that can help councils save money; and I’m sure there is more potential to find win-wins (for example, organising social care so that care workers spend less time driving around, and more time able to focus on caring…). Meanwhile we have to keep on arguing loud and clear for a better, fairer way of funding local government. Our Conservative-led Herefordshire Council hasn’t shouted loudly enough about that, in my view…

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.