The leader of West Devon Borough Council has pledged to work with town councillors in Okehampton to achieve their ideas for the town.
Cllr Neil Jory told town councillors at their meeting at the town hall on Monday (September 9) that the borough council had entered a new era of listening to town and parish councils.
He was addressing the town council as part of the borough council’s efforts to build bridges with the towns and parishes with which it has recently had a stormy relationship.
‘I think it is fair to say that in the last four years the council has been very inward-looking,’ he said. ‘We started 2015 with a new intake of councillors and we found we had to do a major reorganisation in the council.’
He told councillors that that in the efforts to balance the books as government funding to local authorities was cut gradually left the council focusing on that and forgetting to properly communicate its money saving ideas to the electorate. This included plans to build a budget hotel on a car park in Tavistock and proposals to shut public toilets or transfer them to parish councils.
‘We clearly made one or two errors along the way,’ he said. ‘We made it clear that after the election that must change and councillors must get out and talk to their communities.’
Cllr Jory became leader of the borough council after the election in May, which saw a big shake-up at WDBC with 16 new councillors ushered onto the 31 strong council. A number of prominent councillors lost their seats.
Okehampton Town Council has found itself at loggerheads with the borough council over the latter’s scheme to knock down the toilets by the bus station and replace them with a takeaway coffee franchise.Cllr Jory said that the council now wanted to work with communities to find a way forward.
‘When we [the borough council] have come into contact with towns and parishes before, it has been a case of butting heads together and generally having a bit of an argument,’ he said.
‘I’d like to turn that on its head and really build the relationships up with the parish councils and towns.’
Cllr Jory was due to outline the council’s budget for the next five years — its medium term financial strategy — at its hub committee meeting on Tuesday. With the grant from central government now cut to zero as of this year, money is still tight for WDBC with the budget showing a shortfall of £1.5-million to find over five years.
He outlined the council’s priorities for the next four years, which would be improving how the council is run, the environment, well-being, housing and communities.
Among these is a pledge to boost recycling rates and improve customer service. This is another bugbear in Okehampton as the borough council’s outreach office in St James Street was closed in April last year to save £82,000 from the borough council budget.
An outreach service has since been running at the Ockment Centre, originally for two days but now just one day a week.
The borough council voted in July to axe this service but has been asked to reconsider this decision by Okehampton’s borough councillors.
Cllr Jory said working with communities was a priority.
‘We really want to find new ways of working with parish and town councils to try and bring forward some projects in your community,’ he said.
‘We want to find ways of funding grassroots initiatives. We have no cash ourselves but we have brought forward initiatives using lottery funding.’
Town councillor Jan Goffey said: ‘It is nice to know that West Devon are going to be engaging with the parishes rather than imposing from above.’
Town councillor Paul Vachon asked Cllr Jory about the council’s ‘invest to earn’ programme, whereby it borrows money from central government at low rates to invest in commercial property.
The controversial plan to build a budget hotel on a car park in central Tavistock was to have been funded in this way.
Cllr Jory said WDBC currently had £21-million, borrowed at preferential rates from a central government fund, invested in four different commercial property schemes.
At present this is providing a return of £250,000 a year in income which goes into the council’s coffers.
‘At the moment it is going very well,’ said Cllr Jory.
‘There are no problems or hiccups. It isn’t a strategy without risk but I think the bigger risk would have been if we had cut services more.’
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