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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.

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Planning for a major incident

Emergency Plan © Nick Youngson

Following the Grenfell Tower fire and its tragic aftermath, I thought it would be appropriate to talk about Colchester Borough Council’s own emergency planning procedures.

Whilst I am delighted to be able to explain our plans for dealing with a major incident, I don’t think it would be appropriate for me to make any comment on how the situation has been handled in Kensington and Chelsea.

As a local authority, our role invariably starts as support to the emergency blue-light services. They are there to save life, limb and – wherever possible – property. So we may be required to set up a rest centre, for example, where people who are displaced by a major incident can stay for a short period. We did just that, back in February, when Storm Doris unleashed gale-force winds and a tidal surge across our region and coast.

Our role as a council comes more to the fore when events begin to move into the ‘recovery’ stage. This is when we can begin to help support the community to return to as ‘normal’ a life as possible.

A few words of advice: It’s absolutely vital that people consider taking out appropriate insurance to cover the possibility of a major incident causing damage to their property or business. However, I’d say that it’s even more important to give thought at all times to our own safety, and never allow ourselves to become complacent about potential risks – such as, for example, when we stay in a hotel or visit public buildings. It won’t do us any harm (will help ensure the opposite, in fact) to make ourselves aware of fire exits and what to do and where to go in the event of an emergency. As Confucius once said: “It’s wise to always expect the unexpected.” After all, it’s for a very good reason that someone will always run through housekeeping rules ahead of a public meeting, so the audience knows, if the fire alarm rings, that it isn’t a drill. It’s not a matter of ‘health and safety gone mad’; it’s simply plain common sense and about taking responsibility for our own and everyone else’s wellbeing.

I’m keen that we continue to encourage other organisations in the Borough – both large and small – to think about their business continuity plan, too, and the way it will help them cope in the aftermath of a major incident or disaster – be it natural like a fire or flood, or premeditated like a cyber-attack.

Developing a comprehensive business continuity plan allows businesses to get ahead of the curve in identifying the potential impacts that could threaten their organisation and impact their customers. A business continuity plan, such as the one we have, provides a framework for building resilience and effective responses to all kinds of incidents, meets legislative requirements, and protects the organisation’s reputation. We know that ‘building-in’ business continuity, making it part of the way our organisation is run, is going to help us to recover more effectively after an incident and get us back to working normally again in the quickest possible time. An effective and tested plan, like ours, enables us to manage the unexpected and so reassure our residents, customers and staff that effective contingency plans are in place.

Some disasters, like the Grenfell Tower Fire, happen suddenly and without warning, of course, while others allow some time to plan. A tidal surge, for example, may be forecast hours or sometimes even days in advance. We need to be prepared at all times for both.

When facing an immediate emergency, there are a number of responses we need to consider simultaneously. These can be categorised as follows:

Information: This is often unknown, still emerging or just patchy. So just what is the scale of the emergency and what response is needed? The sooner we know, the sooner we can act.

Co-ordination: If we can establish what needs to be done – and, as I say, that is difficult, especially as the situation evolves and perhaps the situation begins to deteriorate – then co-ordinating the responses between a host of statutory agencies, volunteers and Third Sector bodies can sometimes be difficult, initially.

Communications and social media: From the moment a major incident happens, a mass of information pours in from numerous sources, some of which is helpful, some of which is misleading, some of which is plainly wrong. Separating the wheat from the chaff is critical, if our Communications Team and our various information channels, including our website and social media platforms, are to be able to update residents and local businesses with timely and accurate information.

We follow well-defined and well-rehearsed protocols to ensure that our Communications Team remains in close contact with the council’s First Call Officer, our heads of service, the emergency services, government agencies and other public bodies countywide, including Essex County Council, the precise moment a major incident is declared. This also includes providing regular updates to councillors and myself about the incident or emergency as it develops and when it is eventually resolved. The importance of maintaining clear and open channels of communication between all of the relevant authorities, throughout the duration of a major incident, cannot be over-estimated. That is why our Communications Team is on call 24-hours a day, 365-days a year, ready to respond to any media enquiries and share information with other agencies and the public.

Resources: We will usually have a presence on the ground, at the scene, but with all the blue-light services doing their job too, we cannot get in their way. We need to plan to use our resources efficiently, since they might be needed over a longer period of time. It can only be counter-productive to throw everything we have into an emergency, to only then find we have nothing left for tomorrow, the next day, the next week, etc.

The immediate versus long term responses: Obviously we have to consider, as a matter of priority, our immediate response providing help and support to those caught up in an emergency situation. But we also have to think about what we must do, practically speaking, after the emergency has passed. For example, there may be a sudden need to re-home hundreds of people, even though the housing list already has 4000 people waiting on it. And, in the longer term, we will invariably have to consider all of the complex issues, both material and psychological, that are necessary to help the community to ‘return to normal’.

Learning: There are bound to be urgent lessons regarding the incident itself which need to be understood and actioned without delay – but we will also need to examine how the emergency was handled and what could work better in the future.

Compassion: It is important that we understand and relate to every single one of the human stories that emerge after a major tragedy, because every catastrophic event will have a devastating impact on individuals and families.

I am pleased to be able to reassure residents that we routinely practise our emergency planning response to incidents, and that seven of our senior managers take it in turns to be our First Call Officer a month at a time. And we usually deal with a number of ‘incidents’ each and every month.

As I alluded to earlier, I didn’t write this blogpost to pass judgement on what did or did not happen in London recently. I hope you will have found it informative and have a better understanding of the issues and responses a local authority like Colchester Borough Council needs to consider in the event of a major incident or emergency.

If, heaven forbid, a event of the order seen recently in Manchester and London were to happen in Colchester, I would like to think my colleagues and I would get more decisions right than hindsight would show had been wrong – simply because we are confident that we constantly plan and practise for it.

Finally, I would just like to reassure residents that we have no high rise buildings in our housing stock – only two- and three-storey blocks – all of which have been inspected to ensure they do not have the same cladding as that used on Grenfell Tower.