New Hunts council leader will reverse voluntary sector cash cuts

THE leadership change at Huntingdonshire District Council in May will bring a more inclusive approach and a reversal of cuts to the voluntary sector and of abandonment of CCTV in the district.

Councillor Jason Ablewhite, a former Mayor of St Ives, was elected leader of the Conservative group on the district council at a private meeting of councillors on Tuesday evening last week. He defeated another former Mayor of St Ives, Councillor Doug Dew.

“Politically, standing against Doug was one of the hardest things I had done since I joined the party in 1993.”

There was no rancour after the event: the two leadership contenders, who have been friends for years, went together to watch Northampton Saints playing rugby at the weekend.

Cllr Dew will almost certainly remain in the HDC cabinet after Cllr Ablewhite takes over as the first ‘executive leader’ of the council on May 18 from Cllr Ian Bates, who has been in the job since December 2006.

The new deputy leader will be Cllr Nick Guyatt, who unsuccessfully challenged Cllr Bates at that time.

Although a cash-strapped HDC last month approved a strategy that included reducing the �375,000 it is giving to the voluntary sector this year to just �75,000 over a period of years, that decision will be significantly changed after Cllr Ablewhite’s reign begins.

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“I can promise that under my leadership the district council will do all it can to ensure that key voluntary services are retained, and I look forward to working with local politicians of all colours in helping us to realise this aim.”

He has already approached the Liberal Democrat opposition leader, Councillor Peter Downes, to explore the extent of consensus between the two parties, even though the Tories have such a huge majority that numerically he did not need to do so.

“We don’t need party politics other than at election time. As chairman of the overview and scrutiny committee, I have been very inclusive of the Lib Dem members, and that has worked really well.”

Whatever collaboration emerges from that – and the Lib Dems say they are minded to respond positively and will particularly appreciate the change of mind on contributions to volunteers – it is unlikely that Cllr Downes will be invited to join the cabinet. That would be a step too far for the backbench Tories.

But there will certainly be a new look to the cabinet. “One of the things we are very keen to do is to look at our skill bases and what people have to offer,” the new leader told The Hunts Post. “You can know people for years without knowing what they are good at.

“With the challenges we face, it’s absolutely necessary to have a robust team.”

Notwithstanding the change of leadership HDC will still have to find cuts totalling nearly �10million over the coming four years. If contributions to the voluntary sector are reinstated, that money will have to come from savings elsewhere.

In view of that, says Cllr Ablewhite: “My vision is for a smaller, leaner, more efficient district council that still delivers key services, that is an effective facilitator and that has a vision for the future of the district.”

The council’s five leisure centres look safe in his hands, because of the contribution to residents’ fitness, “but there’s huge scope for a more businesslike delivery of that service”.

And he has already met the district’s Citizens’ Advice Bureaux to discuss collaboration on delivering key services to vulnerable residents, as part of his determination that the voluntary sector should not suffer disproportionately from local government cuts.

As to CCTV, although not convinced of the value of the mobile service, “there are key times of the day that need more monitoring than others. There’s a possibility of working with the voluntary sector here too.”

On its way to the shredder is the latest draft of the cuts-generated Council Plan, successor to the authority’s aspirational corporate plan of previous years, “Growing Success”. The new document could be better described as ‘desperational’, listing the levels below which council achievement should not be allowed to fall, such as recycling to 50 per cent of domestic waste, rather than the 60-plus per cent already being achieved.

“We need some realistic targets in the plan. We are one of the best councils in the country for recycling rates, and we want to remain so. If anything, we want to persuade more people to recycle.

“The message we want to send to people is that there are going to be changes over the next few years, but the council providing good key services will not change.”

There were no guarantees on Council Tax rates, though. “We should keep the tax base as low as possible. For many of the people we represent, things are going to get tougher before they get better. But we have to remain flexible.

“So, if we felt really strongly, we would go to a referendum [on a significant Council Tax increase].”