A great future for Harlow
Such is the rock and roll nature of being a local Councillor, I spent the evening of my birthday yesterday giving the ‘State of the Town’ address at Harlow Council’s Main debate.
Here is the transcript of my opening remarks.
Well, It’s been an eventful year. For the Council, for Harlow, and for the Country.
I am going to start by going through just some of the highlights that affected Harlow over the last year, a number of which I will come back to when I look to the challenges ahead.
Despite ongoing cuts to Local Government funding, the Council continues to exercise tight control of its finances, is improving performance, and continues to show leadership and tenacity – standing up for Harlow, its residents, businesses and visitors.
In October, we finally secured a deal, when others were throwing in the towel, to keep the street lights on overnight, financed in a sustainable and transparent way. The only place in Essex where that has been achieved.
In December, the Council secured the final injunction, banning unauthorised encampments across Harlow, the first time this has been achieved at the scale and scope in the Country.
While some were hurling abuse, we showed the leadership and tenacity to take decisive action. Of course this isn’t the whole story, and we must continue to fight for suitable provision for Travellers, balancing firmness with fairness.
Following an independent assessment, we have put in train bringing Landscape and Housing maintenance under Council control when the current Kier Harlow contract expires next year. This will save Harlow taxpayers money, and provide the flexibility and control necessary
The refurbishment of the Town Park and Pets Corner completed, culminating in its first Green Flag award, to add to the 8th consecutive one for Parndon Wood.
Harlow parkrun celebrated its 1st anniversary, and the Junior parkrun started last Sunday, with over 110 runners and many, many more family, friends and volunteers.
There was a major exhibition on post war public art in Somerset House in London, with a whole room dedicated to Harlow, which has generated significant interest in Harlow’s public Art collection.
The Arts Trust continues to put on great exhibitions in the Gibberd Gallery, by nationally and internationally renowned artists, cementing Harlow’s reputation, of both a great art legacy, and a bright artistic future.
We also officially opened two new Council house developments, the first in a generation in Harlow, and I was particularly pleased that we were able to name them Riley Mews in honour of the Riley Brothers from Harlow who died in the World War I, and Foster Court, in honour of Robert Foster serving with the Royal Anglian Regiment, who was tragically killed in Afghanistan.
In the year where there were a number of commemorations of the First World war, it was particularly fitting. I would like to thank Cllrs Clark and Carter, as well as Council officers, the Royal British Legion and others taking the lead on organising many moving events.
We also welcomed the Royal Anglian Regiment exercising their freedom to march through the town. A spectacular and heart-warming event, with around 5,000 residents lining the streets, bringing the community together, and showing our support for those who risk their lives for our country.
We’ve had great progress in the Enterprise Zone, with Raytheon and Arrow announcing their expansion and long term commitment to Harlow, and a development partner appointed for a state-of-the–art Science Park on land owned by the Council,
and of course the confirmation that Public Health England will be basing their headquarters and national science hub in Harlow.
I could go on, but I have chosen this selection to highlight both some of the assets that make Harlow a great place,
its Green spaces, its Artistic heritage, its Community spirit, and some of the fantastic economic potential that is coming to fruition.
A key focus for me, and for the Council, is securing the investment in Housing, in Infrastructure, in Skills, to enable Harlow, and all of its residents to realise that potential.
There are of course challenges ahead.
The impact of the vote to leave the European Union is not yet known, in terms of timescales, the sort of deals on trade and movement of people that might be reached, and the impact on business confidence.
There are uncertainties in Central Government funding, on Business Rates retention, on Housing policy, and of course we effectively have a new government.
The changes to Government policy on Council rents, on extending right to buy to housing associations, and how that is to be funded, have made the prospect of building many more council houses even more challenging.
And we have just had a debate on Devolution, and it remains to be seen if that will have a positive material impact on focusing resources, powers and responsibilities, at a local level, where the needs and aspirations of our communities are best understood.
We need investment in infrastructure, a new Hospital, regeneration of the town centre, and in road and rail
While achieving the ambition of Harlow being the North East terminus of Cross Rail two, particularly in the first phases, is going to be problematic, I welcome the explicit mention of Harlow in the Cross Rail Growth Commissions report just published, and that the recognition that 4 tracking the West Anglia Mainline is an essential pre-requisite for Cross Rail 2, and the benefits that itself will bring to Harlow.
We need a new junction on the M11, as recognised by a resolution of this Council, but I appreciate that sequencing, and the route will elicit a spectrum of opinion. When we have had sight of the consultation that has recently concluded, I am sure we will have a full debate, on this, and of spatial options in and around Harlow for Housing Growth. But whatever the outcome of the debate, I do know that it is essential that we reach agreement on a way forward, and soon, if Harlow is to truly reach its potential.
A lot of these infrastructure investments will be dependent on achieving the scale of housing growth, both to directly meet the needs of a growing population, and to provide the critical mass, and investment money.
We need to explore creative solutions locally for getting the right mix of housing, including truly affordable and social housing to meet the obvious need, and to ensure everyone can benefit from what Harlow has to offer, and what it will offer, in the next few years.
While great strides have been made in educational provision in Harlow, with the UTC, Harlow College and the secondary schools leading the way, we need to do more to promote the great opportunities in Science, Technology, Engineering, Maths and Computing and to get the investment in Skills needed for everyone to take advantage of the great economic opportunities.
We also need to be bolder and more proactive is shouting about the many great things in Harlow, both internally and to the wider world. Using our great artistic legacy, our fantastic green spaces, our community spirit, to attract businesses and visitors, recognise the contribution these things can make to the growth and regeneration of Harlow, and to maximise the use and enjoyment by the people of Harlow.
And finally I recognise that we need to do a lot more to tackle issues of fairness, equality and equity. To recognise there is still too much disparity in things like life expectancy, 12 years less in my ward that it is just across the town in Church Langley, to address with partners, public health indicators such as physical activity, adult and child obesity, and alcohol related illnesses. That is why, despite not being an overly great role model myself, I am a passionate supporter of initiatives like the parkrun and the recent junior parkrun.
I want to conclude by saying I am immensely proud of Harlow, of the place, of the people.
But we need to work hard to ensure that Harlow remains an open and welcoming place, that we maximise its potential, and we secure the much needed investment.
I know that Harlow has a great future, and with the right leadership and tenacity, we can, and will, make a positive and visible difference.