I want to talk about how we can have A Cleaner, Safer, Greener Northampton. I want to do this looking back at the year that has just passed to the year ahead.
We have just come out of a very difficult year for the Borough with adverse audit judgements on the Cobblers Loan and our main accounts. We are waiting for other investigations, including a police investigation, to report further on the Loan.
If it was a difficult year for the Borough, it was even more difficult for the most disadvantaged. Two years of wage freeze in the public sector followed by a 1% annual wage increase has meant the gap between income and expenditure for many working households has increased. 2016 was the year when all previous cuts in benefits, the benefit cap and County Services finally kicked in. And of course we have rising rents in the private sector and rising food and energy costs.
We have ongoing issues with Local Authority finance. A new word I have learned is perma-austerity. There is not going to be an end to austerity, until we elect a Labour Government, maybe.
So, part of our job as Councillors is to help build resilience in our communities so our residents and families survive and thrive. We have to bear in mind that where we have disadvantaged families these are areas of the town that are likely to have structural reasons why they are less safe, less clean and less green. I did a walkabout in the Eastern district yesterday and I could see the fruit of poor urban design.
We have some tools to help us. For one we have the development of the local plan and our opportunity to consult local people on the plan. And our vision for a Unitary Northampton is part of that.
Building resilience for me is about Community engagement and working with our communities. The work NPH is doing in my ward is a good example. Asking local people to identify issues, identify solutions, consulting about change and improvements is empowering and helps people understand how decisions get made.
It is also about structural change. And here I think we need to be looking at how we can implement changes that support all of us and creates a cleaner, safer and greener environment, and that in particular supports the most disadvantaged. For example. We know we need more and more affordable housing. Housing that is energy efficient and that is near to where people study, work, shop and play.
We need to stop cars idling and polluting. The more disadvantage you are the more likely you are to live in a heavily polluted area.
We need cheaper public transport. We need transport that is free for children and young people. We need more cycle routes.
Alongside the local plan we need to develop an anti- poverty strategy. This is a strategy that builds in support to prevent people becoming poor, supports people when they are poor and helps lift people out of poverty. Having a vision of a town that is a Unitary authority with a deliverable local plan, with a strategy to address disadvantage, that has as its aspiration A Cleaner, A Safer and A Greener town could be the way to let go of 2016.
Last year as a Borough we were found wanting. We were named and shamed. Local people have felt the impact of the cuts and the wage freeze. We have more homelessness. More families in bed and breakfast. More families in serious distress.
We need this New Year to be about Hope. Resilience. And a Better Future. Having a cleaner, safer, greener Northampton should not be a slogan. It needs to be an aspiration.