As I reflect on the past year, as always there are highs and lows.
Thankfully the highs outweigh the lows and the best Christmas present I have had has been the news that once again we have balanced our budget and could well find ourselves in financial surplus next year meaning we can again re-invest in our residents a little.
Residents in Cheshire East can rest assured that we are in a strong position going forward due to prudent management of our finances and services and the magnificent hard work of Conservative members and staff.
This also signals a fifth year in succession of zero tax rise and that is certainly a record to be proud of.
We will have to find economies of £12m and although that is a significant sum, we are confident it will be comfortably absorbed and expect to be able to return more money to our communities through grants to those organisations and voluntary groups who do such fantastic work, especially at Christmas.
As I write, I have also just heard the news that unemployment in the Borough has fallen yet again, Congleton down to 0.8 per cent and Crewe down to 1.4 per cent. We are the best place to live and work.
Looking back on our achievements in 2014, there are many I can list that have made me feel personally proud to be leader of Cheshire East Council.
The news that Crewe is to get the High Speed Rail Northern Hub and the thousands of jobs this will create; the revival of Alderley Park in partnership with AstraZeneca and Manchester Science Partnership; Fairer Power the name of the first local authority service to deliver low cost energy to our residents and tackle fuel poverty; Bentley Motors – 300 jobs and an advanced research and development centre at Pyms Lane; a new University Technical College in Crewe to help us develop a new generation of highly skilled and talented young people – doubling salaries in Crewe over next ten years – these have been our major achievements in 2014.
Our road infrastructure is improving all the time and our visitor economy is exceptional.
I like to think we are creative, visionary with a business model that many authorities would envy.
So why is it that our political opponents feel the need to make constant vindictive attacks, some of them extremely personal and not just against me but also against my hard-working staff? Is it because they are void of imagination with nothing to offer the residents of Cheshire East? What a blessing it would be if they turned over a new leaf, made a New Year’s Resolution and agreed to be constructive and work for the people rather than against them.
Our aspirations to have a local plan in place, something all local authorities have to do, coupled with the number of planning appeals we have lost has been a big low point in 2014.
We need houses but it is disappointing that planning inspectors have repeatedly approved sites that elected council members rejected. We have a brownfield first policy but developers choose the easy way opting for greenfield sites instead.
The Task force we have set up will expedite the local plan and deal with the clarification the inspector is seeking. But it should be noted that many authorities (around 40%) still do not have a plan in place and some have withdrawn altogether – an important fact our critics conveniently overlook.
But as a party of localism we are putting residents first with neighbourhood plans in place allowing local people to feel more empowered when it comes to decisions that directly affect their communities and sustainable planning development.
Christmas time is a period when we are reminded of the plight of the homeless and I am pleased to say we have an excellent track record in assisting the homeless. Our teams have carried out hundreds of interventions to make sure no one should be spending Christmas on our streets. They deliver Christmas to homeless individuals each day of the year.
It is also a time when we remember those who are no longer around and this will be a particularly difficult time for my family as my father passed away only recently and my mother is seriously ill. Many families will be thinking of those they have lost or they may be looking after an older relative so that they can enjoy Christmas. I send particular good wishes to them.
I enter 2015 with the intention that we maintain this high performance, deliver more than ever by bringing an end to fuel poverty, no more youth unemployment, greater health, more jobs and a prosperous work force.
A very Merry Christmas and a Prosperous New Year
Councillor Michael Jones
Leader of Cheshire East Council.