Council make-up: 75 seats; 52 Conservative; 13 Labour; 8 Liberal-Democrats; 2 Independents.
Structure of the Council: Cabinet (10 members) supported by specialist executive members and deputies.
Committees: 6 Policy Development Groups, including the one chaired by me, Highways and Transportation
In addition there are two further committees Audit/Finance and General Scrutiny.
Four Area Committees serve the geographical areas of the County and align with the Highways Area Offices. Our area is West Essex.
My role also includes a number of external bodies, (often making use of my environmental management/conservation expertise). They are as diverse as the Kent and Essex Sea fisheries committee, Lee Valley Park Authority, Dedham Vale Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty Joint Advisory Committee, Thames Chase Community Forest, Braintree Care Trust and the Fire Authority.
Thaxted Division is a large area, covering 19 parishes from Felsted in the south to Hadstock in the north. I am finding my way around without too much difficulty, familiarising myself with the territory and issues, and very much enjoying the new area.
Now, a brief resumé of some of the key issues facing the County Council since the last election.
In terms of those looking at the Council it has moved from being a good performing authority to excellent. Examples of improvement include Children's services' getting Beacon status, and being graded a 3 star service. Libraries achieved a four star rating which is the highest, and is one of the few services in the country experiencing growth.
Adult social care has moved from one to two stars and showed significant improvement overall; examples of areas for improvement include developing a County-wide strategy for partnership working, and closer working with ethnic minority group representatives particularly when assessments are being undertaken. These issues and others are addressed through an Improvement Plan, and this is reviewed regularly to monitor progress against the Audit Commission's recommendations. Overall the Council has moved from ‘Good’ to ‘Excellent’ to clearly progress is onwards and upwards!
This has occurred against a background of significant financial pressures and demands on the services. You will all be aware that the County's share of the Council tax has increased by 4.6%, within the governments limits. This reflects still the relatively poor settlement in terms of the Government Grant to the Council.
However more money is being channelled into front-line services such as Children's Services and Adult Social Care, as well as addressing our waste disposal challenge. The Cabinet is already looking very closely at next year's budget, with a view to making significant savings particularly in the administration side.
Consultations have been also significant this year, with a number having potentially major implications for the citizens of Essex.
In the news is the police reorganisation, which the County opposed, but now appears that the Home Secretary wishes to unite Essex with Herts and Beds. In effect the strongest force, Essex propping up the other two.
Health reorganisation is generating a variety of views with 2 or five new PCTs being the favoured options amongst the Local Authorities. The County feels that two would best mesh with the social care service arrangements that it provides.
Housing numbers too has received a lot of attention, with the Eastern region being asked to accept nearly half a million extra houses with the government refusing to contribute to infrastructure. Additional concerns such as water supply and sewerage disposal have recently surfaced at the recent examination in public of these proposals.
One issue that appears to have united all authorities, particularly many parishes across my area is the Stansted expansion consultation. Clearly I have taken a position early on with this, but it is clear that the proposals as they stand and which appear to be not fully worked through, are simply unsustainable and highly damaging to the environment and quality of life for those who live in the airport's shadow.
The County has firmly stated that it is against any further runways.
Finally a comment about the Fire Authority; it has a dynamic new Chief in David Johnson who is looking to develop the service so that it is able to continue to meet changing needs and demands.
We are committed to the part-time or retained stations, whilst at the same time recognising the extra pressures that exist from threats such as terrorism. We are also moving more into community safety and fire prevention rather than just dealing with emergencies. You may have noticed our tax increase here was just 1.9% but with that we have increased personnel and continue to upgrade our equipment.
In conclusion, it has been a busy year settling into the new area, and for the County to develop its framework for its new administration over the forthcoming years. We remain determined to keep Council Taxes as low as is manageable, with a commitment to continue to deliver top quality front-line services by reducing costs on the administrative side.
Simon Walsh, May 2006