Standing together with Ukraine

Central Bedfordshire councillors unanimously backed a motion to stand in solidarity with the people of Ukraine and unreservedly condemn the unjustifiable and illegal actions of the Russian state, in invading Ukraine and deploying alarmingly brutal military tactics.

It’s not often that politicians from all parties unite on a cause and this was one such occasion. Since the start of the invasion, the apparent escalation of tactics is appalling and it’s very hard to take in the terrible scenes coming out of Ukraine on a daily basis.

The motion was an opportunity to publicly acknowledge and thank our residents who have responded to the plight of the Ukrainian people with enormous generosity and kindness. It is amazing that so many have offered their homes and others are supporting through local community groups and donating to charity.

We all share the sentiment that we should do all that we can to welcome and support those arriving in Central Bedfordshire. The Council have set up a dedicated liaison team to support refugees and residents, who have offered their homes through the Government Homes for Ukraine scheme and we will work with our local community groups and voluntary sector, to provide the wrap-around support that will help those who have had to flee their home country resettle here.

The community response has been truly remarkable and an uplifting reminder of the good in the world. I know our communities will continue to do everything they can to help Ukrainians feel welcomed.

If you have offered your home through the Homes for Ukraine scheme, there’s lots of information on our website.

If you want to donate, the best way to do this is to donate to Disasters Emergency Committee (DEC). DEC brings together 15 charities, and your donations will help DEC charities provide food, water, shelter and healthcare to refugees and displaced families.

Helping residents with the rising cost of living

Household budgets are being squeezed more and more as energy, fuel, inflation and food prices continue to soar. Its important everyone knows how to access support if they are struggling.

Every household in a Council Tax band A-D property will receive a one-off payment of £150 to help with energy costs. If you pay Council Tax by direct debit this will go directly into your bank account. If you don’t pay by direct debit the Council will be in touch with you to explain how your payment will be made – you do not need to contact us.

The Council has helped 9,000 vulnerable households with food, energy and water bills using the Household Support Fund. This includes over 12,000 supermarket vouchers for households with children eligible for free school meals to support with food costs during school holidays. We’ve also used some of this funding to support local food banks. 

A second round of the Household Support Fund has been announced and councils will be able to give more support to pensioners through the updated scheme. More information will be available later in the year.

We also fund three local Citizen’s Advice organisations which provide impartial financial management advice, debt advice and help make sure residents apply for the different benefits they might be eligible for.

If you are starting to struggle with paying your rent or mortgage, get in touch with our housing team who can advise you. Don’t wait until you are at risk of becoming homeless, the sooner we can help you the better.

You may also be able to get help with your Council Tax. Although we have tried to keep Council Tax increases as low as possible, we continue to protect those residents on lowest incomes, so those most in need pay no or very little Council Tax.

This year is set to be tough for everybody, especially those on low incomes and Central Bedfordshire Council will continue to support you in any way we can. If you are struggling, please contact us or one of our partner agencies for advice and support.

Helping people live their best lives

Following the turmoil of the pandemic and its impact on local people, communities and businesses, we have renewed our commitment to make Central Bedfordshire a great place to live and work, for everyone. 

Our new strategic plan outlines our areas of focus for the next five years. One of our guiding principles is Fairness. We will create opportunities for everyone, lifting people out of poverty, and putting safeguards in place to avoid people slipping into poverty so everyone can live their best lives.

We’re already making great strides to ensure this is a reality in the services we provide to children. 

In 60 of our schools, we have been running a programme to provide extra support to disadvantaged children both in and out of the classroom, to help them achieve the best possible grades. We’ve also been supporting Gypsy, Roma and Traveller families with access to early years education. We know Gypsy, Roma and Traveller children can often have a disrupted education. We are helping these children with their learning with the intention of them continuing into secondary education.

Outside of education, we are working with hundreds of children who have not had the best starts in life and cannot stay with their families and we become their corporate parents. In those situations, we pride ourselves on being more than just a local council providing a roof over their heads – we work hard to nurture their talents, setting them up to live successful lives. You can read more about this in my previous blog.

We are investing in services to support adults too, and we have recently extended our community catalysts programme for a further three years, which supports small business that are aimed at delivering personalised care and support services.

We know there is more we can do to address poverty and inequality so over the coming months we will be considering what else we can do. We will help all of our residents, including those who come to Central Bedfordshire after fleeing their own countries because of war. In these worrying times, we all want to help. The council stands ready to support refugees to resettle and rebuild their lives. Central Bedfordshire is a great place to live and work – for everyone.

Providing the best outcomes for children and young people in care

It is no secret that we have a vision for Central Bedfordshire to be a place where people can prosper, a place to be proud of and a place to call home.

One area where we have been making great strides to ensure this is a reality is within our Children’s Social Care Services. This includes vital services like our social work teams, fostering and adoption, early help, children’s centres, youth support services and our court teams.

Our aim is to ensure that families receive the support they need as early as possible, and in circumstances where we need to provide care for children and young people, that they aren’t just given a roof over their heads, but opportunities to develop and thrive in the future.

Earlier today, Ofsted published a report following an inspection of these services. It focused on the experiences of children who need help and protection, and the progress of those who are in care, or who have left care.

I am delighted to share that we received a ‘Good’ rating, and the inspectors note that they had seen improvements across the full range of our social work practice. This is especially impressive given the challenges we have faced during the pandemic, and I am delighted that we have not only sustained the quality of some our services, but improved others at the same time.

It was especially pleasing to see the support provided to foster carers and care leavers described as excellent, and the progress made by some of our unaccompanied asylum-seeking children described as hugely impressive.

The inspector also makes several references to how we are not only looking after children who are vulnerable, but we are also working collaboratively with partners to ensure that they have the best outcomes later in life, with care leavers supported with their accommodation, leisure, work and training, health and mental health needs.

The report follows our recent ‘Good’ Ofsted ratings secured by our children’s homes – Number 32 in January, and Maythorn and Kingfishers in July. I am really pleased by these outcomes, but I am also mindful that there is even more we can do and there are other parts of our services that aren’t up to this standard. We continue to work to improve all of our services and learn from the vital feedback we received from regulators like Ofsted, as we work to achieve our vision.

You can check out the Ofsted report here.

Further information about our services for children, young people and their families is available on the children and young people pages of the council’s website.

Setting the council’s budget and investing in services for the future

January and February in the Council is budget setting time.

It’s never an easy task. Our services are mainly funded by Council Tax and business rates. We spend over £400million providing hundreds of different services, many of which everyone uses; road maintenance, household waste collection and recycling, maintaining parks and creating new walking and cycling routes in the countryside, running libraries and leisure centres.

We also provide very important services that only some people use such as child protection and adult social care. Approximately two-thirds of our budget (and therefore effectively a large part of your Council Tax) pays for these critical services which support some of our most vulnerable residents.

Demand for these services is increasing so next year we need to put more money into providing care for older people and adults with disabilities, providing additional support for children with Special Educational Needs and Disabilities (SEND) and children who need our protection.

Focussing on efficiency

As demand for our services increases, we need to look for ways to make your money go further. Next year we plan to reduce our costs by over £9million.

These include:

  • getting involved as early as possible with children, families or adults who are vulnerable (because of ill health, disability or risk of abuse or neglect). By doing this, we can help them to avoid needing more support in the long term, which provides much better outcomes and saves money
  • modernising care services for older people and adults with learning disabilities, so we provide care as close to home as possible, as well as services that will promote independence and reduce reliance on social care
  • improving access to our online services, automating our processes and streamlining how we work to reduce our operating costs whilst still providing traditional means of access to the Council for those without internet
  • building on home-based working that has been necessary and successful during the pandemic, so we spend less on offices, printing and travel costs.

Unfortunately, that’s not enough to meet the pressures we face which means Council Tax will need to increase.

Council Tax

Realising this is a difficult time for many people we are keeping the increase to the minimum possible and propose to increase general Council Tax by 0.95% and a 1% increase specifically for adult social care.

Investing in services for the future

Aside from the services that your Council Tax helps to fund, we also have ambitious plans to invest in new schools, roads, care homes and leisure centres. These are funded through borrowing and grants.

We’re proposing to invest £240million next year on a range of projects including:

Schools – maintaining school buildings, completing the build of the new Houstone School in Houghton Regis, refurbishment of Sandy Secondary School and expanding other schools to accommodate more pupils.

Roads – the new M1-A6 link road and new Arlesey relief road, a new transport interchange at Flitwick train station and changes to the Clophill roundabout to improve congestion.

Leisure – new leisure centres at Houghton Regis and Leighton Buzzard as well as improvements to leisure provision at Sandy and Rights of Way.

Health – building the new Integrated Health and Care Hub in Dunstable and new care homes in Leighton Buzzard and Flitwick.

Tell us what you think

Before a decision on the budget is made, we want to hear from residents and businesses. You can give your feedback online at www.centralbedfordshire.gov.uk/budget2022 or pick up a leaflet in your local library and respond before 31 January.