Everyone has a favourite festive story, but surely one of the most celebrated and captivating has to be ‘A Christmas Carol’, by Charles Dickens. It’s so well told, even the Muppets’ version became an instant classic!
When Ebenezer Scrooge wakes on Christmas morning from his ghostly ordeal the night before, his transformation is complete. Suddenly, the mean-spirited old miser realises that what matters most in life isn’t his own selfish greed, but the universal happiness and wellbeing of his fellow human beings.
Dickens’ timeless morality tale tells us plainly that the drive to accumulate money is no guarantee of contentment, or even of prosperity if it’s simply hoarded, but that individuals and communities truly thrive when wealth is shared.
Now this may seem a tenuous allegory to introduce the main theme of this article – which happens to be about the Council’s success in securing new sources of funding – and I really don’t want to overdo the analogies either – but since my role as Chief Executive entails thinking a great deal about what the Council does with its finances, Scrooge’s revelation about serving the greater good chimes loudly.
For it has become increasingly clear that we face some quite serious economic challenges as a council (as a country, for that matter), and that we will need to work even harder and more imaginatively to increase our revenue. Not merely for its own sake – like old Scrooge – but in order to deliver the services and develop the projects that can improve the lives of people in the Borough.
Against a backdrop of significant and ongoing government cuts, increasing our income in other, more business-like, ways becomes less an exercise in Scrooge-like self-aggrandisement (not that it ever was), but simply the path we have to take if we are to continue to safeguard essential services over the coming years.
And, I’m delighted to say, we’ve been making significant progress in rising to this challenge – not least by attracting substantial amounts of external funding for services and schemes that make a positive difference in the community.
In some cases we’ve achieved success on our own; sometimes by working in partnership. Whatever the approach, in each case the funding we’ve secured helps to increase our chances of outrunning austerity and provide better protection for those essential front-line services that residents rightly expect and deserve.
One of the largest single sources of funding secured in 2017, for example, was for an exciting – and quite literally ground-breaking – carbon-saving initiative in north Colchester, which will see £3.5m invested in the development and construction of a sustainable district heating system using natural heat from groundwater to warm local homes and businesses.
Our project is one of only nine district heating systems to be financed by the Government, and provides a fantastic boost to the Council’s efforts to cut carbon emissions. As well as providing a single source of sustainable energy – saving around 850 tonnes of CO2 per annum compared to conventional heating solutions – the Northern Gateway Heat Network is also expected to generate income for the Council once the project completes in 2020. A brilliant example, I’d say, of our leading commitment to new forms of green technology.
Working with our partners Essex County Council, Braintree District Council and Tendring District Council, we were able to secure £700k last year and a further £700k this year to develop the North Essex Garden Communities project, which will help meet local housing need for decades to come. This huge vote of confidence by the Government will enable new, infrastructure-first garden communities to be developed in sustainable ways that won’t burden the existing infrastructure and services that underpin the quality of life residents already enjoy. By planning these developments ‘holistically’, you might say, we have a real opportunity to explore new ways of delivering services, from waste collections, to rapid transport and social care, before a single home is built in earnest.
Only last month another flagship project boosted by new funding drew international plaudits, when the Council won the European Commission’s prestigious EU Broadband Award for its ultra-fast broadband – financed in-part by the South Eastern Local Enterprise Partnership. What would have cost £6m to deliver via a new fibre-optic network was achieved for less than £500k using our pre-existing CCTV cable network. Ingenious! It was this novel method of significantly reducing build costs, by using existing assets and infrastructure, which was key to gaining the award.
That’s not the only tech-solution I’m excited about… Over the next few months, the Council is set to bid for additional funds to begin the deployment of prototype 5G technology and expand the reach of the ultra-fast fibre network to urban and rural parts of the Borough – a strategy I revealed at a networking event attended by businesses from across the town only last month.
If we can entice the Government to put money into Colchester becoming a 5G pilot town, we will be able to attract even more businesses to invest in our community, which in turn will enable us to build further economic resilience, protect public services and improve the quality of life for everyone in the Borough.
And when I say ‘everyone’, I do mean ‘everyone’. It goes without saying that, however rocky the road ahead, we simply have to continue to support and improve the prospects for the most vulnerable members of our community. And one of the ways we will be able to do this is by securing additional external funding sources aimed at tackling particular social problems.
So, for example, a successful funding application last year, submitted in partnership with Tendring District Council, will see £240,000 awarded by the Department of Communities and Local Government (DCLG) used to increase support for rough sleepers over the next two years .
Another successful joint bid led by Colchester Borough Council earlier this year, but this time in partnership with Tendring DC, Braintree DC, Maldon DC and Colchester & Tendring Women’s Refuge, secured £263k from the DCLG to help vulnerable victims of domestic abuse and their children access specialist refuge provision, particularly those living in hard-to-reach communities.
And the ‘Help for Single Homeless’ project, which benefited from funding secured by Colchester Borough Council, Tendring District Council and Ipswich Borough Council in 2016, aims to provide early intervention for prison-leavers in ways that will reduce the chances of them reoffending.
In October 2017, a joint Colchester Borough Council/Essex County Council project, aimed at encouraging young people to talk about their everyday life and wellbeing, was awarded £20,000 in funding from two leading health charities. Over the course of the pilot, Colchester Council’s No Filter team will contribute valuable project evaluation and community engagement expertise, backed by its own Startwell Campaign which promotes healthy-living messages and supports residents to improve their physical and mental wellbeing.
And only two weeks ago, on 5 December, Sport England announced a major new funding stream (£130m to be spent nationally, in 12 pilot areas) to promote physical activity and wellbeing in Colchester – following a successful joint-bid with Essex County Council, Basildon Council, Tendring Council and Active Essex to explore ways for communities to become more active. Programmes developed within the Colchester pilot, will promote increased levels of activity among vulnerable young families and older people living in circumstances of deprivation.
Now, it’s well known that Charles Dickens was a man of the theatre, who loved all the life and vitality of London’s theatre scene, both on stage and off. He once even delivered a public reading of his work to a packed audience at Colchester’s Theatre Royal, on the site of the disused Queen Street Bus Depot, don’t you know?!
I’m pretty certain, therefore, that Dickens would have endorsed the Council’s participation in the Mercury Rising project, which is going to transform front-of-house facilities at the Mercury Theatre and provide a new production block for the benefit of up and coming theatre-makers. Today, as I write (19 December 2017), it has been announced that our joint bid to Arts Council England has been successful, and Mercury Rising is going to receive a whopping £3.5m of additional funding. What a great Christmas present!
It’s invariably the case that Arts funding declines during periods of austerity. That’s why it’s been so important, in recent years, to step up our efforts to secure external funding to invest in popular attractions such as Castle Museum.
Back in June, Arts Council England awarded almost £800,000 to Colchester & Ipswich Museums Service – funding that will bring more major exhibitions and a better experience for children and young people. The grant coincided with news that the museums service had won its bid for coveted National Portfolio Organisation status, opening the door to a further £200,000 boost every year from 2018 to 2022. A real feather in our cap, considering the fierce competition we were up against.
Add to this the three-year £666k Training Museums grant, £84k over two years for the Happening on the High Street project – both funded by the Arts Council – and £797k of Heritage Lottery funding for the four-year Skills for the Future programme, to help new talent sustain a long-term heritage sector, and you can really begin to see how successful our efforts have been to ensure Colchester remains one of the country’s leading destinations and a place worth caring about.
I could go on – but with the clock counting down to the festive period and presents still waiting to be wrapped, I’ll sign off for now by wishing you all a very happy Christmas and all good things for 2018.