Wednesday, 10 July 2019

Thank you and goodbye

As I leave the council as Leader after 16 years I just wanted to thank you all for everything you do for the people of Wiltshire but also for the support and kindness you have shown to me over those 16 years.

This has been an amazing journey and a great privilege to lead the council for so many years and I wish you all the very best into the future.

With kind regards

Outgoing deputy leader and leader John Thomson and Jane Scott alongside new leader Philip Whitehead

Tuesday, 21 May 2019

The time is right to step down as Wiltshire Council Leader

After much consideration I have decided that the time is right for me to step down as Wiltshire Council Leader.  

My last day will be on 9 July and it will be a big moment for me personally and my family.

I have been privileged to be in the role of leader of both Wiltshire Council and Wiltshire County Council since 2003 and the time now feels right to pass the honour onto somebody else. This is a job that cannot be done half-heartedly – it’s all or nothing, and for me it’s always been all.

I like to think that I leave the council in a good position and that’s in no small part to you the staff. Now, and over the past 16 years, you continue to be the heart of the council and I thank you for helping us achieve our vision over the years; we simply couldn’t do it without you.

I leave with many cherished memories. It was so exciting being a part of a brand new authority in 2009. How many councils are afforded that opportunity? It took us a while to really establish the ‘Wiltshire Council’ identity but given the council’s reputation among our peers and on the national stage, there is no doubt that we’ve achieved it. From the historic 2012 events that saw both HM the Queen and the Olympic Torch come to Wiltshire to repositioning ourselves as a modern approachable part of the community through our three main hubs, I hope in my time our reputation has enhanced.

Of course there have been some challenges along the way, and dare I say mistakes have been made. I do not claim to be perfect by any means, but every decision the council and I have made has always been with the best intentions and I hope people recognise that. My time as leader has coincided with the age of austerity and that’s put enormous pressure on our services, but our forward planning and innovative thinking has put us in really good stead, and leaves us in a good place for the future.

I won’t be putting my feet up and become accustomed to daytime TV. I will be continuing my role at the House of Lords and there’s still lots for me to do, and I will always pride myself on being an ambassador for the county of Wiltshire and the council, even if I’m no longer leader.

I wish my successor all the best and I’m sure they will bring with them a fresh perspective and some new ideas which will benefit our communities.


Tuesday, 9 April 2019

Calling on our communities

In the decade since we made the bold step to become a unitary authority we were under no illusion that if we wanted to make a successful transition we would need the support of our communities.

Communities are the lifeblood and bedrock of any county and that’s particularly the case in Wiltshire.  We have had the need to call on them over the last 10 years and they have stepped up to the challenge each and every time. From supporting us in our libraries, with children in care, and counting at our elections, to being a friendly face warmly welcoming refugees from Syria – they have played a vital role that we never take for granted.

With the national spotlight going to be on Wiltshire this summer with our spectacular National Armed Forces Day Celebration Event, we are once asking for help. Just like the memorable six weeks or so in 2012 when Her Majesty the Queen visited Wiltshire, quickly followed by the equally iconic Olympic Torch, we need volunteers to help make our event a success and one that will live long in the memory. It’s not often that events of this scale are on Wiltshire’s doorstep and we hope this inspires people and they will be excited, keen and proud to be involved.

Of course, your support is also very welcome. Working at an event means you get to spend time with staff that you wouldn’t normally, it helps build positive working relationships that you can take forward into your day to day jobs. Stepping out of one’s comfort zone and doing something new from time to time is by its very nature a little nerve-wracking, but the sense of achievement afterwards is well worth it. It’s no surprise that year after year we see the same familiar faces offering to provide support because when they’ve done it once, it’s something they want to keep on doing. Momentum is really starting to build towards 28 June, when the celebrations get underway, so please get in touch and get yourself right in the thick of it and experience the atmosphere first hand, not on the sidelines.
Email to get involved and I look forward to seeing you there.

We are our own community here at Wiltshire Council, you are our lifeblood and bedrock, and we can’t do this without you, nor would we want to.

Tuesday, 12 March 2019

A year on...

Salisbury – an astonishing year 

March 4 2018 is a date that will live long in the memory for this county, and in particular Salisbury.

It was of course on that fateful day that Sergei and Yulia Skripal were found slumped on a bench in the Maltings and Wiltshire quickly found itself firmly in the spotlight right across the world. From Wellington to Washington, Salisbury was what everyone was talking about.  Last week marked 12 months since the incident and it has certainly been the most challenging time since our council was formed 10 years ago. The sheer scale of what we’ve had to do deal with has been incredible and at times overwhelming, but we learned quickly and worked so positively with our local and national partners, with bonds and working relationships formed that will be so beneficial in all areas of our work.

The Prime Minister visited Salisbury to mark the year anniversary and it was pleasing to see that it is still very high on the government agenda. We have pushed them hard for support during the last 12 months as we have seen for ourselves the impact this has had on the local communities in Salisbury and Amesbury – and we couldn’t let them down. I saw lots of people who were very pleased that Theresa May took time out to meet businesses and those involved in the recovery process, and she had some very kind words for how everyone responded.

The resilience of the communities affected has been inspiring and despite the tests they have faced, they have stuck together and kept their spirits intact. Now that a year has passed, we are focusing our efforts on ensuring Salisbury, Amesbury and the entire south of the county has a bright future. The Armed Forces Day National Event will be a great opportunity to showcase Salisbury in the most positive of lights and it will be great to see the city make headlines again, but this time for much more positive reasons.

These incidents affected a lot of people, but none more so than those exposed to the nerve agent, which caused such a devastating impact on their lives. Our thoughts are always with them, particularly Dawn Sturgess, who tragically lost her life, and her friends and family.

Delivering a balanced budget, as we always do

As we head towards the end of the financial year, it would be remiss of me not to mention the budget. As you know, it was recently agreed at full council as proposed, but I was very sorry to miss the meeting itself due to illness, particularly as this year is Wiltshire Council’s tenth anniversary.

During that decade we have always returned a balanced budget and as leader that’s something I’m extremely proud of. When we formed in 2009 it coincided with the era of austerity so we have faced many tough challenges in ensuring people continue to get the support and services they expect from their council. However, we have constantly evolved, tried to stay ahead of the curve and have been brave, and that has put us in good stead. That’s not to say we’ve not had to make tough decisions, all councils do, but we hope people have a good understanding of the reasons behind the decision-making, even if some don’t necessarily agree with us. Over the course of the next year we will be spending £332m on hundreds of services and as always, the budget is aligned to our key priorities.

The budget reflects increasing demand for care for the vulnerable but we will also be investing in highway improvements and creating a new local plan to ensure the homes, jobs and infrastructure needs of Wiltshire communities can be met. Our Digital Programme also continues to gather pace and we’re excited by the possibilities it gives us.

Thank you as always for your hard work in delivering those hundreds of services I referred to earlier, it’s always appreciated.

Wednesday, 23 January 2019

It’s time to banish the blues and look ahead…

A new year brings resolutions and a sense of a fresh start and new beginnings. I’m sure like me you may have resolved to achieve a new and better you and to make changes to improve your general health and wellbeing.

This week saw what’s nationally known as “Blue Monday”.  Apparently evidence shows that it’s the day when we realise just how much we spent, or more often overspent, over the Christmas period. It’s also the day that most of us give up on those well-intentioned new year resolutions and, perhaps most disturbingly, it’s the day when many people feel most lonely, whatever their age and life situation.

The Samaritans, via the media, are encouraging us all to view Blue Monday as a day to be in the company of others and to have tea and a chat. Across the country independent cafes and coffee shops opened their doors to welcome customers to pop in and do just that. What a simple, yet effective idea.

It prompted me to think that while Wiltshire is blessed with local communities that include others, and offer support to those who are vulnerable - there is no doubt that we can all do more.

Loneliness can affect anyone, at any stage in their life, at school, college, work, or at home, or all of these. I’m sure like me, you’ve had occasion when you’ve just needed someone to talk to, and to listen, and just be there with that unconditional and non-judgemental support.

So this year (2019), I am resolving to try and do that bit extra for others - to offer support when I can see that it could help. After all it’s not really asking much is it? To give some time and have a cup of tea and a chat with someone who just needs some kindness and human interaction.

After all if we all resolved to do a little more for others it would go a long way to rekindling those core values that help communities to become strong and self-sufficient.

And, surely if by a small act – such as tea and a chat - we could reduce loneliness, which is known to be the biggest cause of mental ill-health and many other ill-health conditions, then that’s a great resolution for a new year!

May be if we all did this Blue Mondays or other blue days wouldn’t exist, or have a label. I’m sure Wiltshire will embrace “tea and a chat” and, do you know what - I feel better already having this chat via my first blog of 2019 – so here’s to a bright year ahead for all of us!

Tuesday, 18 December 2018

Wishing you and yours a truly wonderful Christmas…

This is my last blog before the Christmas break, and just ahead of the festivities and some precious time with our loved ones, I wanted to reflect a little on the year we’ve experienced.

In many respects it has been a truly tough, challenging and totally unexpected 12 months.
The first weekend in March we were hit with the Beast from the East bringing heavy snowfall that brought the A303 to a grinding halt leaving hundreds stranded overnight in their cars and others unable to leave their homes due to such severe conditions. 

Then on that same weekend of such extreme weather the nerve agent incident in Salisbury occurred and we encountered the most surreal experience of seeing our usually quiet city become the lead news story all over the world.

Where once Salisbury was famous for its glorious cathedral, ancient lanes and quaint shopping quarters – now its name was synonymous with spies, nerve agent and diplomatic intrigue.

Then in June, just as we thought we were heading back towards normality in the city, the second incident in Amesbury hit.

This time we moved from spies and intrigue to the sad and tragic death of one of our community; Dawn Sturgess. 

What followed was a time when the cohesion of the local communities directly affected by these incidents was tested. And, how they stood up and responded.

They endured. They worked together. They got through it. They were stoic. 

The shared values of community, cooperation and caring for others emerged in their true colours.

At the end of another year, it’s always rewarding to reflect and to count your blessings.

We are lucky to live in Wiltshire. It is a peaceful, prosperous and pleasant part of the world – and its communities know how to manage a crisis – even one that’s the most unpredictable and surreal. 

For that we should be thankful, reassured and blessed.

As slowly normality returns and life rebuilds following the crisis and tragedy in South Wiltshire, we can rest in the knowledge that we have gained. In spirit, in our support for others, and in our determination to get our city and town back. 

And, most importantly in our focus and belief that there is a positive future.

May I wish you and your family a wonderful Christmas, and a more peaceful 2019!

Tuesday, 11 December 2018

A county that’s proud of its heritage

I have always advocated that we really do have so much to be proud of in Wiltshire. Whether that’s the outstanding countryside, the resilience and strength of our community spirit that is visible across the county, or our wealth of wonderful historic buildings and architecture that makes us not just unique, but a place that people seek to live and work in, and visit.

It’s vital therefore that we look after our history and our historic buildings and that we protect and enhance what makes Wiltshire the beautiful place that it is.

You may not be aware of an Irishman named Thomas Henry Wyatt. But you will almost certainly have seen his work as he was a hugely talented and industrious architect who made a greater mark on our county than just about any other architect in history.

In the 1800s he designed grand buildings, bridges and churches right across England, Wales and as far away as Portugal. In Wiltshire he designed 47 churches, two mansions and a hospital. But it was his first project in the county that served as his grandest statement – the Assize Court in Devizes.

This fine imposing building has fallen on hard times in recent years. For as long as most of us can remember the building has stood derelict, with weeds sprouting through steel security barriers, and its noble façade shuttered and neglected. The scene inside even more devastating and derelict – a sorry state for all to see.

But that changed recently.

Thanks to support from the Wiltshire Historic Buildings Trust and a generous cash benefactor, the recently established Devizes Assize Court Trust has taken over ownership.

I was delighted to support the trustees in announcing a rescue plan that will breathe new life into this landmark and hopefully restore it to its former glory. The plan of restoration will include galleries to host Wiltshire Museum’s displays and artifacts, a café, a lecture theatre and community space.

The Assize Court, with the support of the trust and the local community, will be restored and stand proud as an attraction for visitors far and wide to Devizes and Wiltshire.

It will be a glorious and historic adornment to the future regeneration of the Wharf area in the town. This worthwhile project demonstrates the tangible passion in the county to preserve and restore iconic and historic buildings and to keep Wiltshire a special place.

A place that we enjoy as residents and want to share and showcase to visitors from further afield.