Cllr Richard John is the Leader of Monmouthshire County Council and a councillor for the Mitchel Troy Ward.
In a quiet and largely rural corner of Wales, the flame of a compassionate Conservative vision for Wales burns brightly. At the last local elections in 2017, Monmouthshire went from no overall control to become the only Conservative controlled council in Wales with 25 Conservative members, 10 Labour, five independent and three Liberal Democrats.
We are the lowest funded council in Wales because the Welsh Government’s funding formula fails to adequately recognise the additional costs and challenges associated with delivering services in a large rural area. But we have not let this hold us back. Monmouthshire receives just £1,176 per head of population, yet some neighbouring urban councils receive as much as £1,881 per head. If we were funded at the Welsh average, we would receive an extra £40million every year.
Despite these challenges, we deliver high quality public services at the forefront of innovation. We set up an investment portfolio both as an income stream and a policy lever and despite the uncertainty of the pandemic, it continues to return a surplus which directly funds frontline services. We purchased Newport Leisure Park in Spytty with £21million of borrowing. The rental income minus interest payments has delivered up to £500,000 a year to help fund core services. We’ve also used our investment portfolio to secure benefits for our communities even in areas that aren’t the responsibility of local government. We agreed a £2million investment with broadband provider Broadway, which has enabled them to put in place a fibre rollout plan to 17,000 Monmouthshire properties, which would not otherwise have access to high-speed internet.
The pandemic has demonstrated the importance of individuals and councils taking greater responsibility for mental and physical wellbeing. We decided not to transfer our leisure services into a trust, but to reform in-house. While some Welsh councils have struggled with plans to close leisure centres, our approach has been more commercial – to modernise our sites so they’re more financially sustainable. Monmouth was the first leisure centre we refurbished with a brand new gym, dance and spin studios, new kit, a 25m pool with spa facilities, a three storey soft play area with an open plan café and a beauty salon. Until it was forced to close due to the pandemic, the site was returning a small surplus, which is unheard of for council-run leisure centres.
This commercial approach lends itself to a close working relationship with chambers of commerce in our towns. We have a business resilience forum to ensure a close working relationship between our Sara Jones, Deputy Leader and Economy Cabinet Member, her officers and business owners across the county. Through the pandemic, this close working relationship has enabled us to better respond to the challenges facing our high streets. During the pandemic we distributed £41million of Covid grants and got the money to businesses before we even received it ourselves because we recognised that cash flow was a more serious concern for businesses than for us.
In social care, we’ve won awards for the innovative approach we’ve taken to help older people retain their independence through community-based services, which are focussed on the individual rather than an institution. This approach has enabled hundreds of older people to have their care needs met in their own home, where they can continue to live independently. We’re also one of the very few councils in Wales to pay our carers a starting salary £1 above the real living wage.
Our overriding priority has been to offer children and young people the best possible start in life and accordingly, education has been our top budgetary priority for both revenue and capital spend. We’re working with Welsh Government to build new state of the art new schools, having recently completed two new secondary schools in Monmouth and Caldicot and a new school in development in Abergavenny. Although an anglicised part of Wales, we’re ensuring parents have a meaningful choice in education between English and Welsh-medium schools by doubling capacity over the next decade. Our school system is in a strong place as one of the few authorities in Wales with no schools under monitoring by the schools inspectorate Estyn and no schools in a red category under the Welsh Government’s most recent categorisation of schools. We’ve also set up an innovative scheme with the Compass for Life Foundation to mentor primary school pupils from more deprived backgrounds to focus on their dreams and aspirations because there’s nothing as powerful as ambition for the future.
We’re also at the forefront of the green agenda with bold ambitions to improve the connectivity between our towns and villages for cyclists and pedestrians as well as motorists. Working with Welsh Government, this year we’re rolling out more 20mph zones than anywhere else in Wales to improve air quality and road safety. We have one of the highest recycling rates in Wales and we’re decarbonising our fleet with investment in electric and hydrogen vehicles.
Monmouthshire is strategically the best placed county in Wales for growth and our local economy performs second only to Wales’ capital city. Our towns are often considered some of the best places to live in Wales and ranked amongst the best in the UK. We play a full role in the Cardiff Capital Region and the Western Gateway, keen to secure the economic benefits of partnership working for our residents. We still have challenges of inequality both within and between our communities and we welcome the decision of UK Government to work directly with councils on levelling up and shared prosperity funding to continue to tackle this because nothing is as strong as local knowledge and trusted relationships.
We are doing well, but we are ambitious for more. With continued Conservative leadership, a shared vision and a sense of urgency to deliver for our residents, we can make our county an even better place to live, work and visit.