What has the Council ever done for us?
As we prepare to say goodbye to the current crop of Councillors and welcome some new faces on May 4, Council chairman Amanda Martin looks back on the last four years in what could be her last Chairman's Update for Scilly Now & Then.
"Since May 2013 I have had the honour and privilege of serving our community as Chairman of the Council of the Isles of Scilly. Four years which have seen many changes in the islands! Three vice-chairmen and two chief executives have supported me in my role: the late Cllr. Dudley Mumford, Cllr. Gareth O’Neill and since 2015, Cllr. Steve Sims, and interim CE Mr. Barry Keel, who was with us until the arrival of Mr. Theo Leijser in January 2014. In this final chairman’s update of the 2013-2017 council, I shall attempt to summarise some of the milestones from this busy time.
The role of Chairman of the Council of the Isles of Scilly is often misunderstood as it combines the conventional civic role of council chairman with the executive functions of leader of the unitary authority. Duties can vary tremendously, one day the Chairman can attend May Day celebrations on St. Mary’s or St. Agnes and the next be greeting a Secretary of State at the airport.
My chairmanship coincided with many of the commemorations held on all the inhabited islands to mark the centenary of the outbreak of World War One. Full congregations on all the inhabited islands gathered to honour the memory of all those who gave up their lives in the service of their country. We also commemorated both the 70th anniversary of the Battle of the Atlantic and the 70th anniversary of Victory in Europe Day, marking the end of the Second World War in Europe.
It is a pleasure to welcome official visitors to Scilly and to introduce them to our magnificent natural environment. Royalty, Bishops, Ministers of State, MPs, MEPs, civil servants, Royal Navy vessels HMS Somerset, Mersey and Sutherland , transatlantic rowers, the Police & Crime Commissioner, the High Sherriff of Cornwall, the BT superfast broadband team, all these and many others have passed through our islands and gone away conscious of our huge challenges and of our equally huge advantages.
A very important part of the ‘job’ involves trekking to the mainland for meetings and incessant lobbying on islanders’ behalf, sometimes at formal meetings arranged weeks in advance, sometimes at last-minute notice as when former Prime Minister, David Cameron, visited the train depot at Longrock. Early on in my tenure, Theo Leijser and I visited the Minister of State for Transport to update her on local transport matters. Canvassing ministers for financial support is an essential feature of our conversations with Whitehall. In our constant efforts to improve the islands’ water and sewerage provision, there have been many trips to talk with DEFRA ministers and civil servants. Similarly, we have worked with the Department of Communities and Local Government to discuss funding packages to help us provide all the services our council must deliver. It is not easy being the smallest unitary authority with the widest remit!
Our islands face huge challenges and tackling them necessitates working with local, regional, national and international partners. May John Donne forgive me for paraphrasing him but ‘No council is an island, Entire of itself, Every man is a piece of the continent, A part of the main.’ This sentiment seems particularly relevant in these divisive post-Brexit days. Across the planet, communities are exploring the means to reduce their reliance on carbon sources of energy. A ‘smart grid’ approach will have a significant positive impact on our community, both in terms of sustainability and cost reduction. The Council of the Isles of Scilly is working with partners to develop the Smart Island project. HM Government has issued a green paper on its industrial policy, specifying key strategies and priorities that aspire to deliver a modern industrial strategy. Notably, the Government supports smart, flexible and clean energy technologies, all of which chimes perfectly with our Smart Islands programme and augurs well for future local projects.
It might be stating the obvious but, nonetheless, islands have more in common with each other than with mainland communities. It makes sense, therefore, to work with other islanders within Europe and beyond to share ideas and solutions for comparable problems. In late March I went to the European Parliament to sign the Smart Islands Declaration. Notwithstanding an evident overlap with our local project, this pan-European initiative seeks to bring together islands from Sweden to Sicily, from Greece to Scilly with the aim of learning from each other and to strengthen our communities through social, environmental, technological, economic and political innovation. Whether large or small, islanders are all affected by weather, transport, housing, mass tourism, population fluctuations – the key is to transfer knowledge and to make our communities sustainable.
The majority of our local electorate voted to remain in the European Union, with 56% voting to remain and 44% to leave. We cannot guess the full impact of ‘Brexit’ on the islands but we shall be negatively affected on many levels, including the potential loss of future investment in the islands. Some laws and regulations may change in the long term but this is likely to take many months.
From 2014 onwards we have been working hard to reshape and reduce our workforce and to streamline council governance arrangements. Staff members have been re-deployed where possible and some irregular employment arrangements that were in place within our Council have been corrected. Elected members produced the Council’s new corporate plan to give structure and definition to the work of the local authority. Our local authority underwent a Local Government Association (LGA) Corporate Peer Challenge in 2015. This presented an opportunity for a rigorous review of the council’s organisational leadership, governance, financial planning and delivery of services. The LGA has been very supportive of the Council of the Isles of Scilly and has provided advice and mentoring to members and officers. We are in the process of agreeing inter-authority agreements with Cornwall Council to share services, which should provide efficiencies as well as savings.
Although the Council of the Isles of Scilly was not a signatory to the Cornwall Devolution Deal, we have made it clear that all its policy areas could affect the Isles of Scilly. Consequently, I sit on the Cornwall Devolution Deal Monitoring Board as leader of our council. Other members are the Leader of Cornwall Council, the Chairman of the Cornwall and Isles of Scilly Local Enterprise Partnership, the Chairman of Kernow Commissioning Group and the Cornish members of Parliament.
Two years ago, a reduction in the number of council committees took effect with the dual aim of rationalising council work and saving money. This was viewed as a work in progress and the Democratic Purposes Panel has spent the intervening months examining ways of continuing this process. Parliament recently approved the Local Government Boundary Commission recommendation to reduce the number of elected Members of the Council of the Isles of Scilly, proposing 12 councillors for St. Mary’s and one each for Bryher, St. Agnes, St. Martin’s and Tresco. Inevitably, this will have an impact on how local governance arrangements can function with 16 councillors as these changes will affect the local elections in May 2017.
Over the past four years, the St. Mary’s roads and runways have been resurfaced, the airport has been expanded, superfast broadband has arrived, the Moorwell Alp has been levelled and the ‘big school’ has been demolished. The protection of residential care services at Park House is an ongoing issue but I sincerely hope that we can continue to look after our most vulnerable residents. In the future we hope to be working with the NHS and other agencies to create durable integrated care facilities. The 125th anniversary of the founding of the Council of the Isles of Scilly was marked in 2016 by an information event at the Town Hall where members of staff explained the numerous services provided by the Council. One of the things I am most proud of is to have established bi-annual public meetings on all the inhabited islands. Twice a year I have visited St. Agnes, Bryher, Tresco, and St. Martin’s with other councillors and officers, before holding similar meetings on St. Mary’s. I sincerely hope that these meetings will become part of council tradition for the future, as they provide good opportunities to hear about the latest developments within the local authority and to ask any questions about local authority matters.
These have been difficult years for the Council of the Isles of Scilly. Budgetary cuts and increased responsibilities have necessitated further savings and some tough decisions have been unavoidable in order to protect our core services and to bolster our finances. Much hard work lies ahead but in the mean time I should like to express my gratitude to all my colleagues for all their support and hard work. A particular word of thanks is owed to Derek Thomas MP, who is unstinting in his efforts to help the Isles of Scilly. I wish the new Council all the very best for the next four years."