Greener growth means Garden Settlements

You’ve no doubt heard the expression ‘You can’t fit a quart into a pint pot.’ Well some of you will have. I realise we are into litres now, but for me the quote fits.

‘You can’t fit a quart into a pint pot’ refers, of course, to the impossibility of fitting something into a space designed for something only half as big.

Colcestrians won’t be alone – or wrong – in thinking their town contains only so much development land, and that to meet the growing demand for more houses and jobs a sustainable solution will have to be found (far bigger than the proverbial pint pot) which can meet those needs without having to build on every last scrap of the living earth. A process urban planning folk euphemistically call ‘densification’.

So if continuing densification isn’t a long-term growth solution for Colchester, what other alternatives could meet the development challenges that lie ahead? Cue: Garden Settlements.

You may already be aware that, along with Braintree District Council, Tendring District Council and Essex County Council, we’ve begun to explore the idea of developing up to four Garden Settlements in north Essex which will help to meet the increasing demand for new homes generated by a growing population in our region.

The watchword here – and every step along the way – is ‘sustainability’: how we can meet the future needs of a growing population without overwhelming the services and infrastructure that underpin the quality of life we already enjoy. Intelligently-planned Garden Settlements could be the answer.

“So what are Garden Settlements?” I hear you cry. Well, one thing they’re not is haphazard ‘sprawl’ or some kind of expanding asteroid belt of random developments popping up all over the place just beyond the edges of town. On the contrary, Garden City principles are all about creating planned new settlements which enhance the natural environment, provide high-quality affordable housing, infrastructure and locally accessible jobs.

They’re what you might call ‘smart’ developments, which combine the very best of town and country living, with all of the necessary services and infrastructure, such as cultural, sports and leisure facilities built-in right from the start. They’re planned around enabling people to travel within the community and to other settlements on foot, by cycle, by car or by bus, via an accessible and integrated transport system. And green space is enshrined in the design with parks, gardens, and open space all complimenting and enhancing existing natural environmental assets.

It took nearly 2000 years of incremental, organic growth for Colchester to become the town it is today. Garden Settlements won’t take quite as long as that to mature, but will develop over a period of time alongside new infrastructure and jobs.

So what’s the next milestone on the road to these proposed new Garden Settlements? Well, we’re currently working towards producing a new Local Plan which will be subject to public consultation in the summer. The partnership we’ve formed with neighbouring authorities was recently awarded £640,000 grant-funding from central government, for initial work to investigate if Garden Settlements are appropriate for this part of the world. This initial piece of work will provide evidence on infrastructure needs, the number of new homes and new jobs that could be created, and the provision of green spaces.

Unlocking large-scale housing developments is critical to driving the supply of new homes in the medium- to long-term. They can offer a more strategic and thoughtful alternative to sequential development (aka “sprawl”) around existing communities, which can sometimes burden existing infrastructure such as hospitals and schools.

Once the public consultation has taken place, we’ll review all the responses and determine whether the Local plan needs to be revised prior to submission to the Planning Inspectorate. An independent examination is then expected to take place in 2017.

When the town planner Ebenezer Howard set out his vision, in the 1890s, for a series of ideal towns in England, coining the term ‘Garden Cities’ for new settlements combining the best of the city and countryside, he was proposing a radical solution to the housing crisis of the day. Back then, the population of the UK was 38million. Today, that number has grown to more than 64million, and, like many other parts of the country, our town and region is feeling the effects of that growth more and more.

I think garden settlements represent a bold and enlightened solution to the population pressures we face, as well as the duties, obligations and responsibilities we have as a local authority to provide affordable homes and a decent way of life for all of our citizens. I, for one, am looking forward to seeing how much they’ll deliver on their potential.

That Was The Year That Was

For me, the abiding appeal of that classic Hollywood film and perennial Christmas TV favourite ‘It’s A Wonderful Life’ is the way it makes us think about the interconnectedness of people and the importance of appreciating the simpler things in life. Okay, the director, Frank Capra, piles on the sentimentality in places, but by the end-credits we’ve learned some valuable lessons about just how easy it is to take for granted the community we live in, and how creating and maintaining a vibrant town doesn’t just happen by chance but through the willingness and care of everyone who lives in it. The film tells us plainly: if we really want to create communities worth living in, and places worth caring about, then we have to step forward to make it happen.

I meet people every day who are helping to ‘make it happen’, who are working incredibly hard on behalf of the local community to improve the lives of the people who live and work in our Borough. And so I guess, with the festive period and New Year fast approaching, now feels like an appropriate time to look back at just a few of the many highlights of an eventful and busy 2015, and pay tribute to all of my staff for their hard work in helping to make Colchester a better place for all…

‘Making a difference’ was very much the emphasis during two Community Days of Action held in Berechurch in February and Lexden in September, led by the Safer Colchester Partnership. The Lexden Day of Action was the first to be organised around a bid by the local community to host the event and deliver legacy improvements for local people. Look out for another two events in 2016 – the first one in Greenstead, in March. And, as I write, we’ve just announced Colchester’s Big Choice, offering up to £200,000 to deliver projects that will provide long-lasting community benefits for the Borough, with residents having a final say on which ones go ahead.

Outcomes from across the range of our services tell the story of council staff working incredibly hard to serve our residents and customers. Where to begin? Over 202,000 contacts handled through our Customer Service Centre this year, for starters. I could also mention the 25,440 benefits changes processed between April and October, and the 3910 new Housing Benefit and Local Council Tax support claims processed in the same period. Then there were the 925 planning applications determined between April and October – 90% of which were decided faster than the Government target – not forgetting the 3397 resident permits issued across the North Essex Parking Partnership area.

The Community Hub in the Library continued to create a communal ‘buzz’, offering a host of frontline customer services under one roof and encouraging residents to register for an online account to do many of the things they could once only do in person – such as pay bills and receive help with benefits – which has helped to revolutionise the way people access our services.

Colchester’s cultural life was as vibrant as ever this year. The castle continued to delight and draw the crowds. Colchester Market relocated to the High Street, and the town centre received a Purple Flag award for providing a positive experience to night-time visitors. There was a Green Flag award for our much-loved Castle Park and High Woods Country Park, and Colchester won double awards from Britain in Bloom and Anglia in Bloom. Who, among the thousands who attended, will forget the amazing Light and Shades Halloween laser show which beamed animated stories onto the exterior of the Town Hall? Is it any wonder confidence in the Town Centre continued to grow this year, along with more than £500million earmarked for new projects, including the Creative Business Centre and a new Curzon cinema?

I could literally could go on until Christmas recounting all of the great things over the past 12 months that have helped make our borough a place worth caring about – but perhaps I should use what little space remains just to say a huge ‘thank you’ to all of my council colleagues and to you, the reader, for continuing to take an interest in my Blog.

I wish you all a very happy Christmas and a prosperous 2016.

Brave New Digital World

I’m almost certain if you’re reading this here blog, you’re online. It’s where people seem to spend a lot of their time these days tweeting, shopping, gaming, Skyping and generally interacting in ways which would seem utterly bewildering to people used only to face-to-face contact, postal deliveries and telephone calls less than a generation ago.

Like it or not, we live in a world which is progressively more digital. All-encompassing cyberspace is helping to connect us in novel and far-reaching ways. It’s how I am able to speak to you now, and, as a council, it’s providing us with new methods to deliver some of our services much more flexibly and efficiently.

Take, for example, our new website colchester.gov.uk launched last year, which receives over 110,000 visits per month on average… It’s not just the place to go for user-friendly information about our day-to-day work and the services we offer; it’s increasingly the place where residents can engage with us for more straightforward interactions such as paying bills.

November saw the launch of our campaign to support residents accessing several services through their online account at www.colchester.gov.uk/online. This is a place where they can quickly and easily see how much Council Tax they owe, set up a Direct Debit, apply for a Single Person Discount and switch to e-billing. Housing Benefit recipients can also view their entitlement, check correspondence and the income on a claim. Making these and other services available online is just one way that we’re supporting residents to manage their household budget and find the information at a time convenient to them, rather than having to phone, email or visit in person.

We’ve also been developing existing partnerships with several social landlords and charities operating in the borough, to encourage their tenants to access online services too.

We’ve already seen a significant dividend, shifting to online services. For instance, between September 2014 and March 2015 customer engagements increased 89% across our website (not including payments), increased by 71% in the Revenues and Benefits area of the website, and by more than a 100% in visitor traffic to the Planning pages, with a noticeable drop in the number of inbound telephone calls. This has helped us make £300,000 savings last year and on-target savings of £400,000 this year – money that can be diverted to other front-line services.

You can connect with us elsewhere in cyberspace, too, including our Visit Colchester tourism website and app, and via a busy social media presence on Twitter and Facebook, with dedicated profiles for Leisure World, the Town Hall, Colchester Market, and Colchester Museums. Then there’s our YouTube Channel, showcasing life in Colchester to a truly global audience. And those interested in local history can download the Colchester Heritage App, an interactive guide which allows you to explore the borough’s historical treasures.

Our commitment to use the best that digital technology has to offer is also helping to transform the way we manage off-street parking. We recently launched MiPermit, a cashless way of paying for parking using a smartphone app, online portal, text or phone call, with no need to issue a paper ticket. Its convenience and flexibility means you can top-up a parking stay at any time, so a shopping trip, meal out or an over-running appointment needn’t be cut short. Very useful, I’d say, with the Christmas shopping season approaching fast.

I’m tremendously proud of the leaps we’ve taken to connect digitally with the people we serve and, knowing how amazingly fast technology continues to advance, really excited about the changes still to come.

BB4N (bye-bye for now).

Think Global, Act Local

It’s no wonder we face an uphill struggle combating climate change, when petrol costs less than bottled water in some parts of the world. Nowhere is the global warming dilemma – between ‘happy motoring’ on the one hand and ‘protecting the environment’ on the other – felt more acutely, perhaps, than in the United States, from where I’ve just returned from a holiday.

America is a big place – full of big cars, big roads, big everything! Convenience is King, and don’t you forget it! Seeing such an abundance of riches in the world’s leading consumer society, I began to wonder if things will ever change: will Americans ever find a way to manage their affairs sustainably, in ways that don’t threaten the ability of future generations to do the same? Will we, here in the UK and Europe?

I’m optimistic. The US leads the world in developing alternative energy and other green technologies, holding out the hope that we won’t always have to choose between saving the Economy and saving the Earth. And as the saying goes: when America sneezes, the rest of the world catches a cold (and sometimes even the flu). Just look at the huge strides the UK has already made generating a substantial amount of its energy from wind power. Not only is it helping to prevent climate change, it’s also helping to reduce the economic burden of importing vast quantities of oil and gas. That’s a win-win situation, as far as I’m concerned.

So what are we doing locally to tackle climate change? First off, the council takes its environmental obligations very seriously and recently signed up to the Local Government Authority’s Climate Local Commitment (snappy title, I know), a carbon reduction plan that aims to reduce our carbon emissions by a whopping 40%. The Climate Local Commitment also supports our 2015-2020 Environmental Sustainability Strategy, a wide-ranging pledge to reduce the environmental impact of our core activities and services.

We’ve already proven we can make a significant difference, having exceeded our 25% carbon reduction target with our last Carbon Management Plan. And we’ve been helping residents reduce their energy bills, too, by encouraging them to sign up to the Big Community Switch, which has so far saved the 600 households who’ve switched a total of £138,510 on their energy bills. We’ve also generated income by feeding excess electricity back into the National Grid from solar panels installed on council homes, avoiding more than 1,200 tons of CO2 emissions in the process. And our Warm Homes Project is helping residents reduce their energy bills, with home insulation and other energy-saving improvements.

The more I see the progress we’ve made, the more I realise it doesn’t always have to involve the straight choice between costs and ethics – between saving money and saving the planet. It’s perfectly possible to do both, nationally, locally and as individuals. Each one of us has the power to make the world a better place. I know that will sound airy-fairy to some, but actually I’m a pragmatist. I realise it’s not going to be easy to turn around the climate change juggernaut, but ‘doing nothing’ is really not a sustainable option either.

Perhaps each of us can look at some other changes we can make at home, at work or in our business which helps reduce our carbon footprint a little bit more, and save ourselves some extra money into the bargain.

North Essex Parking Partnership (NEPP)

We often get asked who the NEPP are, what their role is and perhaps mostly – how much do the Enforcement Officers get paid in commission for hitting their targets in issuing tickets!

Well I hope to explain all of this in my latest blog post and do some ‘myth busting’ along the way.

First things first. The NEPP stands for the North Essex Parking Partnership. They are a Joint Committee of 7 local authorities that provides a partnership between Essex County Council and six district and borough councils – Braintree, Colchester, Epping, Harlow, Tendring, Uttlesford.

And yes before you ask, there is a South Essex Parking Partnership that covers the other areas of the county.

Why do the NEPP have such a strong link to Colchester Borough Council? We are actually the authority that manages the joint service and employs all the staff for the Partnership as well as providing its communications and marketing services. I hope you’re still with me. It is effectively a shared service managed and run by Colchester Borough Council although the Joint Committee of 7 authorities agree all the policies and policy changes.

At this point I think it is important to address the issue surrounding Enforcement Officers and commission. Quite simply our Enforcement Officers DO NOT work on commission nor do they have targets to hit – in fact what they do get… is grief!

Whether they issue 10 or 100 notices the officers get paid the same every month. The most important thing is that the notices and the charges are fair and valid.  We do not expect to get it wrong otherwise it is costly to us in both time and resources.

I’ve actually spent a day with a Civil Enforcement Officer that works for the NEPP and watched how they go about their work and interact with the public. Although this probably goes against most people’s perceptions they were very reasonable and genuine. Of course you say he would be because you were there. Oh come on. He knew his job, his role and how he should conduct himself.

The best way to understand the role of an Enforcement Officer is by looking at why we need to enforce in the first place? Well we need to keep traffic flowing, to ease congestion and to make it safe.

We have people contact the council to complain about how busy Colchester’s roads can be but believe me, it would be a lot worse if we didn’t have Enforcement Officers managing parking. However, some of these same people can be the first to complain should they get a ‘ticket’.

There are two types of enforcement – on and off-street parking. Off-street parking refers to the parking in council owned car parks while on-street parking refers to things like the yellow lines on roads, parking bays and permit areas.

Our Civil Enforcement Officers go through a stringent training programme so they know what constitutes an offence and yes as with anything I am sure we get it wrong; but very very occasionally. Most of the time we don’t!

You know the best way of not getting a ticket – don’t park where you are not meant to. And don’t park in our car parks without buying a ticket. And please don’t tell me about Civil Enforcement Officers hiding behind bushes or walls! It is a great story, but….Don’t park illegally – we won’t issue a ticket – you won’t get angry – we won’t need to read and try to understand some of the reasons for appealing your ticket. Although we would miss the last part of this sequence.

Please stay safe and legal we are trying to help law abiding motorists to do just that.

If you’re interested in understanding more about the day-to-day role of a Civil Enforcement Officer then I recommend reading and following a blog written by an officer in the NEPP – https://northessexparkingpartnership.wordpress.com/

Working with others

A cheesy heading I guess. Don’t worry I’m not going to drone on about how important it is to get along etc. etc. Rather I want to give an insight into my role as the Chief Executive and the work I do with other agencies and organisations.

In local government we continuously work with others. It would be virtually impossible to get things done if we didn’t. You may be familiar with reading about how we work with Essex County Council on schemes to reduce congestion or with Essex Police if an incident occurs within Colchester. Although these things are often the statutory responsibility of others, we know, as your local Council that we need to influence these things.

But what happens when we have a large scale project? Take the improvements being made in Colchester Town Centre for example.

How many of you have heard of the Colchester Town Team? I wonder what a show of hands would reveal. Anyway – it is a group that I lead that brings together over ten business organisations and larger businesses in the town centre to build a better Town Centre.

We meet regularly to discuss ways to take the Town Centre forward, but branch out even further than that!

This is best highlighted by a report that the Colchester Town Team commissioned a few months back. We wanted to find out what issues businesses in the Town Centre are facing regarding their trading. So how did we go about conducting this?

Yep – you guessed it. We worked with them to find out their views. 145 businesses in fact!  How was it paid for? By all the organisations around the table making a contribution. This is because you cannot expect the Council to pay for everything each and every time. It does not work like that anymore even if it ever did in the past.

So what is the point of all this? Well – I guess what I’m trying to say is that there is much more going on behind the scenes than what meets the eye and much of it done by bringing people together. This is not about being secretive or excluding people. It is about the need to identify issues, consider actions and then look at how we can resource those actions.

People often ask questions of large organisations. It’s only natural. Colchester Borough Council make decisions that impact thousands of people but being in my position I can confidently say that they aren’t just made on a whim. Working with others is essential – to ensure a general consensus is gained and the right decisions are made.

I for one am pleased with the developments in the Town Centre this year – the return of the market to the High Street, the new park and ride and rolling out the town centre WiFi scheme to name just a few.

Volunteers

In a previous article I expressed how pleased I was with the work our Waste and Recycling team does. I noticed a reply left by ‘Mike’ which said not to forget volunteers and groups who also help out. As volunteering week took place last week, I thought it would be a good time to address this.

I think it is important to recognise, respect and thank those who take pride in the community to help others and highlight the great work that they do – maybe even inspire someone to join in!?

Anyway, I have this theory. When I think of volunteers I get this image in my head of groups of people sweeping the countryside in an organised fashion collecting litter – perhaps this is a slight injustice to the volunteer sector because they really do so much more!

Nevertheless I get the feeling that volunteer groups don’t have as many members as they used to – people who are driven to help others and make a difference.

But why? I have some ideas. People are living busier lives, travelling further afield, exploring different opportunities. So quite simply they may not be around as much and this can create a lack of cohesion in a community.

Like many other workers across the country, I would place myself in this category and actually look forward to getting involved with various groups when I have more time on my hands.

I hope this isn’t the case but maybe the cynic in me is telling me it’s something else – ‘it’s not my countryside, someone else can do it’. Are we too comfortable with others doing things for us? How many of us don’t participate in these kinds of activities because they think it’s someone else’s responsibility?

Volunteers do a wonderful job and there aren’t enough of them. Think of all those who you may or may not know that give up their time to help people less able whether it’s for social care, working in shelters, youth volunteering or even conservation.

A good friend of mine, Tracey Rudling, the Chief Executive of Colchester Community Volunteering Service (CCVS) does great work with the organisation and research she has conducted shows that one of the main barriers to volunteering is not knowing where to go.

CCVS is a great place to approach if you are interested in volunteering as they have a number of different schemes. They provide training, support and even expenses for certain volunteering and the people over there couldn’t be more helpful.

One of their schemes is called ‘Time Bank’ and is volunteering with a twist. It is ad hoc volunteering in your community as and when something is requested that you can help with.

I’ve got to know some great anecdotes from Tracey and her team at CCVS and wanted to share them with you in the hope that it can inspire others to volunteer:

  • A blind lady requested some help through the Time Bank scheme. She wanted help in writing out her Christmas cards. CCVS were able to match her to someone who was keen to give up their time to help someone in their local community. The cards were written and since then, the two members have stayed in contact with each other and regularly meet as companions.
  • A young person was struggling to interact with people as she was very shy and anxious about meeting new people. This made joining college very difficult and was affecting her work. Youth workers at her local youth group encouraged her to use a voluntary role to build up her confidence. CCVS worked with her to find a role that she was interested in. Placing her was easy – following a discussion about her interests, we identified she likes working with younger people so we placed her within a local youth café. This taught her to speak to new people and also make choices that would affect other people. Since volunteering she has made great strides. Her college life has improved and so has her work. She was also nominated for a “Who Will Care” award for the work she has done!

I just wanted to say thanks to Mike and everyone else who takes part in volunteering across the Borough. You are the unsung heroes of our communities and do a fantastic job! Please share your volunteering story with me by writing in the reply box below – you can make it anonymous if you wish.

If you are interested in volunteering in any capacity, please get in touch with CCVS:

Email – volunteer@ccvs.org    |    Tel – 01206 505250    |    Web – www.ccvs.org