First job on the agenda for newly appointed Fenland Council leader Chris Seaton was steering through the authority’s budget for the coming year and going against officer recommendations.
Councillor Seaton, who was officially endorsed as leader at a special meeting held prior to the full council gathering on Thursday, said the change in leadership came “at the most tricky” time.
Speaking for the first time following his election as leader following the surprise resignation from the role in January of Councillor John Clark, Coun Seaton said he was looking forward to the challenge.
He is expected to lead the council through the next 14 months until the local elections in 2019.
“It has all happened rather quickly. John’s resignation was unexpected although, there might have been those who considered it a possibility following the decisions by the North East Cambridgeshire Conservative Association (NECCA), that he might resign at the annual meeting,” said Coun Seaton.
Instead Coun Clark chose to announce his resignation at a group meeting on January 11 after NECCA deselected a number of his cabinet members, ruling them out as candidates in next year’s elections.
Coun Seaton paid tribute to Coun Clark for his “excellent leadership, integrity and commitment” over the past four years and said it was because of him that Fenland is finally being put at the top of the agenda in terms of funding for essential infra-structure projects such as Wisbech Rail.
“I think it is finally being recognised that Fenland has been neglected for many years and that is down to John’s drive to keep Fenland high on the agenda following the setting up of the Combined Authority,” said Coun Seaton.
He said Thursday’s full council meeting which saw Fenland set its budget with a 1.97 per cent rise in council tax was always going to be tricky as he allowed a free vote on the subject.
“I don’t believe in whips, I wanted an open vote on the budget. We had discussed it at our group meeting and there were those who felt we should go with the officer recommendation for a 2.98 per cent rise, but I felt that was not necessary,” said Coun Seaton.
Instead after proposing the budget as drawn up by officers he paved the way for Councillor Sam Hoy to put forward an amendment recommending the 1.97 per increase.
The reduced increase means for one year only the council will have to raid its savings to bolster the budget to the tune of £75,000.
But Coun Seaton said he was very aware of events in neighbouring Northampton where there have been severe issues with trying to set a budget.
“Using our reserves is not a sustainable option, but it is OK to do that for one year only. We shall have to carry out a second comprehensive spending review (CSR) to make further savings. We have already carried out one CSR over the past three years, and all the ‘low hanging fruit’ if you like, has been cut, now we will have to scrutinise further to see if there are other areas where we can make savings and also where we can increase revenue,” said Coun Seaton.
However, Coun Seaton ruled out charges for blue bin collections - something that has been the subject of speculation on social media sites.
“We have statutory obligations, we have introduced the brown bin charge and that has worked very well, we have kept that the same again this year. Our bin collections work extremely well thanks to Councillor Peter Murphy who ensures they run like a well oiled machine.
“In fact other authorities, such as Peterborough City Council, are looking to follow our lead and take the bin contracts back in house,” said Coun Seaton, who said he thought long and hard before standing for the leadership.
“It is going to involve a lot more work and a lot more meetings, for example I have Combined Authority meetings on three days next week, but I am looking forward to the challenges over the next 14 months, and I hope to build on John’s excellent work and keep Fenland’s needs at the top of the agenda.”
Reflecting on his time as leader, Coun told members: “It was a privilege to led Fenland District Council for almost four years. I am proud of the strategic leadership provided by members which has enabled our staff to deliver quality services throughout Fenland.”
He said when he was elected in May 2014, the Government’s austerity measures were well underway and Fenland District Council was one of the “worst hit councils in the country”.
But he said members have worked together to make the difficult decisions necessary to reach savings targets, and the council now finds itself in a much better financial position.