This is a very different report in many respects because of the impact of COVID19 on the District Council and our residents. At the start of April 2020, we none of us had any idea how long the restrictions would last or the how it would affect people and businesses.
In fact, I believe it is not an exaggeration to say that BDC staff stepped up magnificently to the challenges presented. Together with the support provided by Essex County Council, the District Council ensured that essential supplies were provided to residents who were shielding and unable to leave their homes. Parish Councils also had a big part to play in their own communities.
Grant money to the total of £35 million has been distributed to businesses. The Finance team worked incredibly hard to get this money out as soon as the Government made it available and their efforts were recognised in a phone call to the BDC Chief Executive, Andy Wright, from Alok Sharma, Secretary of State for Business, congratulating BDC on its efficiency.
We are fortunate in this District to have a low number of rough sleepers but, in response to the Government’s ‘Everyone In’ initiative, the Housing team ensured that those who needed somewhere to stay were provided for.
In recognition of the financial challenges being experienced by many residents as a result of the pandemic, it was agreed at Full Council on 22nd February that its share of council tax would be frozen for the year 2021/22. This is not something the Council can do every year but it is one less thing for residents to find extra funds for during this coming year.
In terms of Council business being carried out, Braintree District Council was one of the first Councils in Essex to get virtual meetings up and running. This was in large part to the technology already available and, once again, the staff in the IT team working extra hours to ensure that their colleagues and Councillors were able to log-on from home using Microsoft Teams and Zoom. All public meetings have been made available via Youtube for residents to follow – more about Planning meetings below.
All in all, an incredibly challenging year and the next twelve months will continue to be difficult in many ways as residents adjust to lockdown restrictions easing and our businesses try to get up and running again.
At the start of the new Council year, in April 2020, all meetings were suspended pending advice from central Government as to how business could be conducted. There was a particular impact on my Portfolio as Cabinet Member for Planning and as a member of the Planning Committee due to the frequency of meetings usually held.
Fortunately, Planning Committees were able to resume, virtually, late May – and BDC Planning department coped far better than many other Planning Authorities across the County – but there was an inevitable impact with a backlog of applications quickly building up. With officers working from home and site visits unable to take place during lockdowns it has been a difficult twelve months for all concerned including applicants, most of whom have been very understanding of the problems but some have gone to Appeal due to non-determination, which is unfortunate.
Despite the problems associated with the pandemic, we were able to get Section 1 of the Local Plan approved at the start of 2021 following the Inspector finding it sound. The examination of Section 2, which deals with local policies and development sites, is due to start in July and, hopefully, will be relatively straightforward if the Inspector finds it ‘sound’. If so, the aim is to take it to Full Council by the end of this year for approval.
I was pleased to be able to use my Councillors Community Grant fund for the benefit of the villages in The Colnes Ward. I supported the Atlas Club in Earls Colne with a contribution towards much-need external work and, together with Cllr Courtauld, gave money to the Scout Hut project.
Finally, I must acknowledge the brilliant community effort across the four villages in The Colnes with residents pulling together to support their neighbours. The Parish Councils played a large part in coordinating this effort which has continued into 2021 and, I have no doubt, will carry on for as long as it is needed. During what has beena difficult and, for many, a sad year, it has been heartening to see the warmth and generosity of our village residents towards each other. Long may it continue!
The Colnes Ward