Better housing, a healthy environment and the public having their say - South Ribble sets out its long-term plan
As he prepares to lay out the long-term plan for what he hopes to achieve as South Ribble Borough Council leader over the next four years, Paul Foster claims he can sum up the many individual policies in one word.
“Fairness - that’s what we want for the borough,” says the Labour leader, whose group took control of the council following local elections back in May.
“We need to sort out the air quality and the environment, [ensure] fairness in taxation and put our public buildings back into use. There is an awful lot we need to do and can do,” Cllr Foster says, promising new initiatives on an almost monthly basis.
A draft of the council’s new corporate plan, the final version of which will be put before members later this month, crystallises the ruling group’s vision for the borough and its residents well into the next decade.
While many of the measures it contains have already emerged in recent months, one of its ambitions has so far been kept under wraps - a plan to put the council back in the housing market for the first time in decades.
“We will build our own houses - there are three or four schemes that we are looking at...and we will make sure that they are of the highest quality.
“We won’t just provide houses, but homes - at an affordable rate where people will want to live, in areas of high air quality and good infrastructure,” Cllr Foster says.
The Labour leader was recently criticised by the opposition Conservative group for comments he made during his own time in opposition questioning the desirability of some proposed development in the borough - which they claim risked prejudging future planning applications.
“The rules are the rules and we have to abide by the law of the land, but that doesn’t mean we can’t create new policies, have new ideas and bring in new opportunities for housing to the borough,” Cllr Foster explains.
Elsewhere, one of the main planks of Labour’s election campaign was a push to improve the environment - both locally and further afield.
Since taking control of the council, plans have been approved to plant a tree for each of South Ribble’s 110,000 residents in order to improve air quality, ban single-use plastics within the council and its suppliers by 2025 and make the borough carbon neutral within a decade.
A debate on the latter policy at a full council meeting earlier this year focused on whether it was realistic for South Ribble to set itself a zero carbon target 20 years in advance of the rest of the country. The draft corporate plan now describes making the “council and is operations” carbon neutral by that date.
But Cllr Foster rejects any suggestion that South Ribble cannot make much of an impact on its own - and instead focuses on the borough’s ability to lead by example.
“If all council leaders do our bit, those bits will come together and we will make a difference.
“Single-use plastics is a prime example - we have set a target and we will do it. And then if Chorey and Preston do it and others elsewhere in the region, then we will [have an impact].
“Let’s not consume ourselves with Brexit - let’s consume ourselves with things that matter to our communities,” he adds.
The long-term plan outlines the new administration’s commitment to the green links policy which it inherited - to create a network of green corridors better linking the borough’s parks and open spaces.
But on another policy brought forward by the previous administration - a so-called “leisure campus” site for the borough - Cllr Foster warns that the plans as they stand may not be affordable.
“We are going to have to make some big decisions, but we will deal with the problem. There will be a new leisure facility, but it might not be exactly the provision we have looked at previously,” he explains.
Details of the revised options for leisure services and a long-delayed deepening of an agreement to share more services with neighbouring Chorley Council are due to be set out ahead of the next full council meeting later this month.
One of the new leader’s first acts when he came into office was to create a cabinet position specifically for community engagement - and recent weeks have seen the launch of major public consultations into the future of Worden Hall and proposals to scrap a minimum contribution council tax which has to be paid by low income residents .
Cllr Foster says that the move towards more consultation has already proved its worth.
“The public do want to have their voice heard [about] local issues - they do want to have an input.
“We have had to extend the Worden Hall consultation by a further two weeks, because it proved so popular.
“We are finding that if we ask the right questions and give people honest answers, we get loads of positive feedback.”
Meanwhile, Cllr Foster says he also welcomes the scrutiny being provided by the Tory group - which finds itself in opposition for the first time in nearly two decades - and the Liberal Democrats, who are supporting Labour on an issue-by-issue basis after the council fell into no overall control.
“We’ve got to be held accountable, that’s how it should be. We’re trying to improve scrutiny and open up far more of the council’s documents.
“I’m not afraid of sharing anything with anybody - that way, you get the support and confidence of your local community,” Cllr Foster adds.