The shorter days of winter provided ample opportunity to focus on the complexities and conflicting demands of setting a legal and balanced budget for the Isle of Wight Council. I’d been heavily involved in setting budgets for businesses and having no prior experience of local authority budget processes could be seen as a handicap, but for me it has supplied a deeper understanding of the workings of the council, exposed the continuing lack of central government financial support and has been an opportunity for personal development.
Our unique and beautiful Island provides both positive and negative inputs to the budget process. Our local demographics, geography and socio-economic status provide quality of life from our culture and environmental elements and the challenges of an aged and aging population, declining birth rate and dependence on seasonal and low-paid employment. Coupled with our ongoing housing crisis and spiralling inflation, the need for IW Council support is clear if we are to move from simply managing decline to facilitating Islandwide regeneration.
Local authorities are, by their very nature, havens of continuity and zero-risk culture. This maintains the status quo and may provide a steady course when the going is fair, but it is not what is required to change direction, enthuse or reinvigorate. Local authorities are also endowed with momentum that resists change through long-established protocols and procedural strait-jackets, by outdated conventions and by legislation that often seems ill fitting with ‘digital’ and faster-moving times. The role, purpose and attitude to risk of the IW Council must change to meet the ambitions of the 2021 elected councillors, from all parties, who are determined to sustainably change the lives of residents and business for the better. The emphasis on party politics can be put on hold, ancient animosities and suspicions must be tempered, and collaborative mechanisms forged to enable change.
Change is always harder than keeping things as they are, and that to many more comfortable with the old ways of working, my views can seem to invite greater risk and even conflict. But change we must, both councillors and staff, if we are to turn around this monolith of a council ship. I, and, I believe, the majority of those elected in 2021, did not stand as councillors simply to keep things as they were. Our electorate gave us a mandate for delivering change for the better and for all, and that is and must remain our common priority.
The draft budget published last week commences that much-needed change. It is legal and balanced, it raises expectations of residents and businesses with significant contributions to new housing, to our education sector and to local investment in regeneration. It also demands a new approach by your council and elected representatives, all of whom must embrace it with commitment, stamina and resolve. No half measures – just getting on with the job.