This could be the year that everything finally changes

In 2019 I became the first ever Green District Councillor in Cherwell. Apart from that being a little bit of personal history for me, it was also the start of a change that would unfold across the county over the next 3 years with Greens playing their part in the removal of Conservative control in every major local authority in Oxfordshire.

In 2019, Green colleagues in South Oxfordshire, along with the Lib Dems virtually swept the board, taking control of the District Council from a huge Conservative majority with 5 Greens being elected. Another Green was elected on the Vale of the White Horse Council. Then in 2021 Greens, Lib Dems and Labour took control of the County Council in a three way alliance with the Lib Dems and Greens forming a separate group which I now have the honour of being deputy leader of. Finally in 2022 we took joint control of West Oxfordshire District Council with the Lib Dems and Labour as well as gaining a further seat on CDC.

That left CDC as the only remaining Conservative controlled council albeit with a drastically reduced majority of only 2. The group that I and 2 Lib Dems formed in 2019 grew to 12 members by the end of the last municipal year meaning that from 2022 we became the official opposition with me as deputy leader of that group.

That’s a huge turnaround in only a few short years which feels even shorter given that for one of those years the elections were cancelled.

Now with Cherwell as the last remaining bastion of Conservatism in the county, the prize is for the taking. As long as all the currently sitting opposition councillors hang on to their seats (which includes me) in the forthcoming elections, we have a good chance of taking control of CDC. We really need 4 extra seats to be flipped from the Conservatives and the way the country feels about them at the moment that is a very real possibility.

Greens hope to take one more seat in Bicester where we’ve come a close second 2 years in a row, with the Lib Dems hopefully gaining 2 more. In Banbury there’s a chance that Labour will also gain an extra seat which would then give a 4 way Green/Lib Dem/Labour/Independent alliance a majority. Even if we only gain 2-3 seats the council will fall into no overall control which gives us much more leverage to ensure that areas like Kidlington get a better slice of the district pie.

For far too long Kidlington has been the poor relation in Cherwell with the majority of funding and investment going to Banbury – where the council has so far sunk £130M into a failing shopping centre – and Bicester – where they plan to spend £4.25M on upgrading a car park in an events space that no one really seems to want.

This year we have an opportunity to see real change and real progress in areas like Kidlington as well as the rest of the district. I hope voters will take that opportunity and we can finally have a clean sweep across the county leaving progressive, forward thinking authorities looking out for the best interests of current residents and those yet to come.

This year, more than ever in Cherwell, every vote will count. I won in 2019 with only 72 votes to spare, although last year Fiona Mawson won with a far more convincing majority of over 250. I hope I can emulate here but we can’t afford to be complacent. Everyone needs to use their vote to support the candidate most likely to win against the Toru candidate. In Kidlington East that’s me and I hope I can count on local support.

Let’s not lose this chance to break the Tory stranglehold and make a better future for everyone. Make sure your vote really counts on May 4th!


Let’s get Fiona Elected to the District Council

It’s elections time again and this year I’m supporting the campaign to get a second Green councillor on to Cherwell District council.

Fiona has been a parish councillor for 7 years in total and sits on both Yarnton and Kidlington Parish Councils. She’s a a huge supporter of community projects such as the Cherwell Larder where she can be seen doing the washing up and helping to lay tables every week.

Like all Greens she’s been working tirelessly for her local community as well as supporting local and national climate initiatives. I’ve been proud to stand with Fiona against the destruction of local green spaces as well as campaigning with her on national issues.

She will make a great District Councillor and it will be great to have some Green company in the council chamber. I hope everyone will show her the same fantastic level of local support as I’ve received from the people of Kidlington, Gosford and Water Eaton.

We’re currently running a Crowdfunder to raise money for her campaign. It would be really appreciated if people could share the link around and give whatever they can to help get Fiona elected to be a new voice for the people of the Kidlington East Ward.

The link is here

Offers of practical help would also be great. Door knocking in in full swing and we also need leaflet distributors.


Let Them Eat Chicken!

Many people will have heard the absurd comments from Cherwell’s lead councillor for Financial Management and Governance, Tony Ilott, on BBC Oxford breakfast radio on Tuesday. I thought it was worth covering a few of the comments made by the Conservative representative in more detail.

The programme featured a running topic on the amount of back rent owed to several councils in Oxfordshire and you can hear it here. This is not a problem unique to this county as so many councils now rely on commercial investment to make ends meet since central government no longer provide enough funding for even the basic services that we all rely on.

This problem is exacerbated by the fact that legislation requires local authorities to balance their budgets every year and prevents them from borrowing to cover any shortfalls. This leaves them in the position of trying to operate like private investors without having the same financial flexibility.

With many local authorities now heavily invested in commercial property they have all faced a huge shortfall in income from rents that have not been paid throughout the pandemic. To add insult to this injury, even though the Chancellor said he would provide “whatever it takes” to help local government, central government has excluded losses from commercial investments from it’s support payments to councils.

The need to balance the books each year results in councils being left with only 2 options when they have a shortfall in rents. Either they increase council tax (which can only be done up to certain limits without a costly referendum) or they cut services.

that’s going to be a pretty expensive chicken dinner for the residents of Cherwell!

This is what Cherwell District Council did in 2021 when they reported losses in the region of £1.6m against the Castle Quay shopping centre in Banbury. With similar losses predicted for the next financial year, this is likely to put the same pressures on the budget for the following year which will inevitably mean yet more cuts, along with additional charges like we’ve seen this year for things like garden waste collections.

Commercial landlords would usually carry these sorts of shortfalls over a period of years, often borrowing to cover the gaps, and recover as much of the rent as they could over that time with deferral agreements with tenants. Ultimately some of the losses may have to be written off. But as explained above, councils can’t do this. So as long as these shortfalls are on the books, more cuts or tax increases are the only way to deal with the problem each year.

It was clear though from the interview Cllr Ilott really didn’t understand any of the mechanics of this, which is quite staggering considering his role on the council. When he was asked if he thought there should be a change in legislation that would allow councils to deal with these problems, he said he didn’t think so. Instead he chose to make childish personal comments about me and avoided answering the interviewer’s questions about how the council will recover these losses.

it’s clear that they have no real vision for how to revitalise the development other than the idea that making it bigger will somehow make it better.

He did make mention of ‘working with tenants’ which of course is a good plan. As a retail consultant myself I’d always advocate such a move, but due to the limitations imposed on councils, this can only be done on a year by year basis. Any outstanding debts at the end of each year will need to be accounted for and action taken on increased taxation or services cuts.

Cllr Illot suggested that we look at things “in the round” and I agree we should do that. Unfortunately, time restraints on the programme prevented me from laying out the full details, but I’m happy to do so here :

  • Losses in the last financial year attributable to Castle Quay – £1.6m
  • Losses predicted in the next financial year due to Castle Quay – approx £1.6m
  • Rent owed to Cherwell District Council at this point – nearly £2m
  • Loss in value of Castle Quay shopping centre since the council took full ownership – over £30m (it’s now worth less than half what they paid for it 4 years ago)
  • Additional investment being ploughed into expanding the centre – £73m (underwritten by council tax payers)
  • Interest on the loans to finance all this (so far) – £2m+ per year
  • Cuts required to the entire council budget this year – £4.4m

Yes some of this can be blamed on the pandemic, but retail was already on the decline when the council took the frankly bizarre decision to buy the scheme, especially as it’s clear that they have no real vision for how to revitalise the development other than the idea that making it bigger will somehow make it better. That and Cllr Ilott’s head in the sand optimism seems to be the main strategy from our Conservative councillors.

I don’t see that as good value for the council tax payers of Cherwell. Judging by Cllr Illott’s flippancy and lack of concern he seems to regard massive financial losses along with the associated financial impact on resident’s pockets as fine as long as he can get some chicken.

I’d say that taking all that into account that’s going to be a pretty expensive chicken dinner for the residents of Cherwell!

And let’s not forget that all this money is going into one town in Cherwell – Banbury. Meanwhile Bicester town centre’s retail area is being hollowed out due to the council’s planning decisions elsewhere, and the whole of the district – every single tax payer – is footing the bill for all this incompetence. As is often the case with Cherwell Council , the south of the district is left to fend for itself and pick up the tab. If I were a cynical soul I might suggest that this is because the majority of support for the councillors who agreed to this whole adventure comes from the north of the district.

But I think we should all be able to rely on decent fiscal management from our local councillors, no matter where we live. Sadly it seems clear to me that we can’t expect this as long as the Conservatives are in charge.

It’s about time the Tories got a proper grip on council finances and stopped playing chicken with all our money!