Annual Town Meeting 2017
It was interesting that last year there was a Government consultation around whether should a meeting should be scrapped but the general feedback from our sector, and from the public, was that this was a valuable opportunity for the community to come together and to have an open dialogue on issues and concerns that may be raised. Tonight we have had some excellent presentations that have been a very useful learning and sharing experience understanding many of the initiatives happening in the town.
Due to elections and purdah the Mayor has agreed that I should present this report and the clear highlight has been the nomination, and then the award, of the National Association of Local Councils Star Council of the Year to Oswestry Town Council for 2016/17.
This is a tremendous accolade considering there are 10,000 town, parish and community councils in England and Wales, and over 80,000 elected Councillors. The Award is given to a Council that meets a number of criteria which include communication, innovation, pushing boundaries, and providing quality of services. What is clear is that the Award has taken the name of Oswestry far and wide. In the last few weeks we have been invited to talk to the Department of Communities and Local Government about the role and influence of local councils, such as Oswestry, and also to speak at an All Party Parliamentary Group for Democracy at Westminster.
The underpinning reason that the Council won the Award is the three corner relationship that exists between elected Councillors, Council staff and the large number of partners that the Council has that enable it to provide such a wide range of services and influence agendas around local economy, tourism, promotion, etc. of the town.
The Council has been involved in many initiatives during the year. We have heard tonight about the Business Improvement District, and this has been an opportunity that the Council has facilitated, and then seized, by giving a commitment of some £30,000 through grant or loan to enable the business community themselves to explore whether such a measure will be in the interest of the town, and to then enable the business community to work with wider partners.
The Council continues to facilitate the Oswestry CCTV scheme. It has won national acclaim but the Council has not sat back on its laurels. Already we have another bid, as mentioned, in with the Police & Crime Commissioner and this will allow us to continue to upgrade the infrastructure and to provide new cameras as issues and needs arise.
The town centre is on everybody's agenda and the Council has continued to make the strongest representations regarding empty shops and the impact these have on the visual reputation of the town. Through NALC and NABMA we have challenged and voiced our concern about business rates and how the changes in valuations and collection will affect our high street, and in particular, independent retailers.
What we must balance, however, is the fact that the town centre is still busy, car parking numbers are increasing; the business community is working together to look at a BID and we are still blessed with a wonderful range of independent retailers. We have seized on the opportunity presented by the Leader of Shropshire Council to bring together the two Council's to look to establish a new vison for the town centre and to set an early action plan that must include the issue of the condition of certain commercial premises.
The Town Council's footprint in the town centre is considerable. We invest £30,000 each year into Christmas decorative lighting; facilitate and provide all the floral planters and hanging baskets that have won twelve consecutive Heart of England in Bloom Awards; our Park is a flagship and we continue to promote market events and other activities to try and increase footfall in the town centre. We are currently out to consultation on a Street Trading Policy as the Council is looking to protect and enhance our market tradition by taking traditional market activities into the street to try and reconnect our indoor market with the core of the town centre. By taking on this licensing function we can then easily help others to arrange town centre activities without prohibitive costs.
Markets, and their futures, are on the agenda of every town and city. The internet, the direction of the food chain being driven by supermarkets, changes in the high street and the growth of pound shops have changed traditional shopping trends where markets once firmly stood proud. This Council has accepted the challenge of preserving our traditions. Our indoor market will now open 4 days a week to try and attract start-up businesses with a strong core package of low cost start up, low risk and business support. We have applied for planning permission to take more market activities into the street to provide the link between the indoor market and the retail centre and early green shoots are visible with the success of our rebranded Artisan Market that is flourishing in its new location down Bailey Street.
The role of the Mayor is significant within any Town Council and this year we have seen what a great ambassadorial role the Mayor has played attending over 350 engagements, promoting the name of the Council and the town far and wide. The weekly column in the Advertiser has given a profile to the office of the Mayor but importantly it is highlighted the many organisations and individuals in this town who work under the radar to provide support and enhance the quality of life for so many people. That column has clearly demonstrated the supportive role that the Council itself plays in terms of social wellbeing and in keeping in touch with the many people that help make this town tick.
At the national level, our Town Council has continued to operate a Service Level Agreement for the National Association of British Market Authorities. Over the last decade this has brought in some £350,000 of additional income to the town which has helped the Council offset the cost of many of its services and events and relieve pressure on local council tax. That organisation is in a position of change with a new Chief Executive to be announced in the next few days but the indications are positive that a relationship can continue subject to discussions.
In terms of communication, the Council continues to work hard. We have recently produced a leaflet about the Town Council and we have approaching 2,500 followers on Twitter, over 100 following the Council on Facebook, and our Website attracts over 20,000 hits each year.
The Council has also seen an increased use of the 15 minute Public Session time in front of all its meetings and working with the Press we have worked hard during the twelve months to really get out what the Town Council is about, what it is doing and also to welcome feedback and ideas which are then fed into our agendas.
All parish and town councils are finding local governance difficult. Each is being required to do more for less and is also being pressurised to assist our principal councils as they struggle with their financial restrictions and the growing pressures in meeting the cost of statutory services such as Adult Social Care.
Arguably, local governance is now becoming an issue around people and place with the principal council perhaps having its budgets focused on people services whilst parish and town councils are being required to step up to the plate to look more at protecting discretionary services and becoming involved in place management in terms of public realm, tourism, economic regeneration, etc.
We have worked closely with Shropshire Council this year looking at how the Town Council can help in their service delivery and at the present time negotiations are ongoing regarding possible land transfers that could have mutual benefits for both Councils. These issues will be ongoing into the term of the new Council.
Our working with the principal tier has now extended to relaunching the former Joint Economic Board which will now be known as the Town Centre Partnership. This will be an excellent vehicle to bring together the various interests, skills and expertise that exist that can help revitalise the town centre and rebuild a vision for how we see Oswestry town centre in years to come.
More people and organisations want to engage with the Council. The announcement of the Wilfred Owen statue this week demonstrates that role of the Council as a facilitator and its expanding role into tourism and public realm. The Council have agreed to financially underwrite an exciting project, but in return, the partnership is seeking grants and sponsorship to lower the end budget figure. If the financial support and guarantee had not been provided then Oswestry would have lost out on this probable final opportunity to commemorate the life of Wilfred Owen and his association with Oswestry.
Health has been a huge subject on our agendas and the topic of many representations. We have been active voices in the future of A&E in the county; the future of maternity; ambulance and performance times; urgent care centres and car parking at the health centre. The Mayor has brought on board partner councils in Shropshire and into Wales to share and endorse our concerns. The petition arranged by the Mayor was taken to the meeting of decision makers. That scrutiny and the representations will continue.
It is frustrating that confusion continues in some quarters about the role and influence of the Council. Leading into the Elections we produced a leaflet that contains some interesting facts. As examples, last year we organised 151 market related activities; the annual cost to each Oswestry elector this year for Oswestry Cemetery is £3.86; the cost for each elector for Cae Glas Park is £10.41; nearly 75,000 visits were made to the public conveniences on the Central Car Park last year; we are responsible for over 500 trees and look after 457 footway lights. There are 22,600 internments in Oswestry Cemetery but perhaps the most important fact of all, in terms of looking at value for money, is that it costs, on average, each elector of this town, 59 pence per week for the services, events, and activities which are provided by this Town Council.
As we move to a new Council term and Elections on 4th May, on behalf of all the staff at the Town Council, we would like to sincerely thank the elected Members of the Town Council for their work, commitment and support to us throughout the last 4 year term. A particular thanks to Cllrs Cynthia Hawksley and Elaine Channon who are standing down after many years of loyal and dedicated service.
A Corporate Plan was set by the Council to cover that 4 years journey and many of the aspirations and commitments, as made, now have ticks in boxes.
At the end of this civic year, and at the end of this Council term, perhaps it is proper to scrutinise and look at the role of the Town Council and its elected Members that fell into three main categories. These were: representing the local community, delivering services to meet local needs, and striving to improve the local quality of life.
Hopefully from the report that I have presented this evening, and a review of the Council's 4 year term, you will see many successes and collectively these have led to an independent assessment by government, various agencies and national bodies with the result that Oswestry Town Council was awarded the title of Council of the Year for 2016/17.
This is a tremendous accolade for the elected Members and the staff but more importantly, it is a tribute to the value of the many partnerships that the Council enjoys and, of course, the town of Oswestry itself.
DAVID J PRESTON
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