Thank you, Richard, and thank you Karl and John for organising this timely conference. [Pause]
In his summer statement, the Chancellor of the Exchequer, Rishi Sunak, signalled a clear understanding of the importance of a strong housing sector, and the determination of the Government to support you in your efforts to help to restart our economy.
I am sure that, like me, if someone had told you a year ago that within 12 months we would face a global pandemic resulting in communities around the world going into lockdown, and our Government taking urgent and dramatic measures to keep our economy afloat, you too would have found it difficult to imagine.
But the unimaginable has happened, and now, we must focus firmly on how we restart our economy and recover from the impact of Covid-19.
I’m going to be very honest here, there is no silver bullet, and there are no easy answers. It is now a well-worn phrase, but we are living in unprecedented times.
However, amid the tragedy of Coronavirus, we have also learned a great deal, or at least been forced to recognise and embrace what we knew before, but perhaps took for granted.
For me, the message is clear. We are stronger when we stand together. Collaboration is key to meeting challenges and conquering adversity. It is also the key to success.
At the beginning of my leadership – 10 months ago – I said that I wanted South Kesteven District Council to continue on its journey of dynamic and sustainable growth; and that I wanted to reach out across political divides, across sectors, and across local and regional boundaries to realise and unleash the potential that our district, our county, and our region has to offer.
That is still my ambition.
In January, we adopted the South Kesteven Local Plan, which set out the need to deliver an average of 650 homes a year by 2036 - or 14,000 homes within that period. This represents an increase of nearly 25% of homes in our district. Clearly this is an immense challenge, but it is one I am determined to meet.
However, we can’t do this alone. As a partner, we bring to the table the ability to create the right environment within which you can thrive and prosper. You bring to the table your considerable skills, knowledge, and expertise to turn the opportunity we create into reality.
Over the past couple of years, we have seen significant growth in our housing market, with the support of partners such as Larkfleet. In 2019/20 we topped 729 new housing completions, the highest for more than a decade. The last time this happened was 2007/08 – before the financial crash.
Our support for key proposed developments in Grantham, including the garden village at Spitalgate, and our partnership with Burghley in Stamford to bring forward a fabulous and exemplar mixed-use development at St Martin’s Park, are just two examples of exciting potential within our district.
Of course, recent events will have an impact. But even before Covid-19 arrived and changed our world overnight, we were working with partners in the public and private sectors to identify and unlock potential barriers to economic and housing growth.
As you know, infrastructure is fundamental to sustainable and dynamic growth, and it is central to a holistic approach that I am taking right across the council.
I am determined to ensure that our wider needs on infrastructure, employment, and the environment are heard at the highest levels because building sustainable communities means joining hands across boundary lines.
Infrastructure transcends geographical and political boundaries, whether we are talking about utilities, health care services, schools and education, or our road and rail network. None of these issues fall directly into our responsibilities as a district council. But that does not prevent us from playing our part in a multi-agency approach to identifying problems, empowering and implementing solutions.
So as well as leading a number of recent sessions with partners on key sites to identify barriers and develop an action plan to unlock them, we have developed a working group of senior officers from SKDC, Lincolnshire County Council and Homes England with the aim of securing the relevant external investment needed to unlock growth within Grantham.
This group – which I hope will expand to include more partners – is particularly focused on the huge opportunity to deliver 8,000 homes and a range of commercial developments and community facilities to the south of Grantham, within Spitalgate Heath Garden Village, and the Prince William of Gloucester Barracks. Naturally, we also have our sights set on progressing developments in the north west of the town.
If we are successful in our multi-million-pound bid to the Government’s Future High Streets Fund, plans to regenerate Grantham town centre will accelerate even faster, putting Grantham well and truly on the map as a thriving and prosperous market town that attracts innovation and success.
Again we would look to you to partner with us in this exciting venture.
But we also know that we must ensure that our systems and processes are the best they can be to support our bold vision for South Kesteven District and to enable the environment you need to succeed.
That is why, last year, we created a Special Projects Team, to advance the progress of major developments. And that is why we have commissioned a planning review from Cratus, national leaders in development planning services. Cratus is reviewing the structure and culture of our current planning system to ensure it reflects our ambitions and, crucially, supports high-quality engagement with developers.
Alongside the challenge of delivering the right number of new homes, we also need to tackle the challenge of affordability.
In 2019, while nationally the house price to wage ratio fell, in South Kesteven it increased. The average house price in our district is 8.4 times the average wage. This is the highest in Lincolnshire and one of the highest in the East Midlands. It will come as no surprise to any of us that this is an issue which is particularly acute in the south of the district, especially in and around Stamford.
Clearly higher house prices are an indication of desirability, and this is to be welcomed, but I want to ensure that we address the issue of affordability so that our district is accessible to all.
I am lucky enough to be able to live in the area where I grew up, where my family and many of my friends still live. It is important for our local economy, that we provide housing that meets the needs of all our residents, including our young people, who will hold our district’s future in their hands. We need to ensure that if they want to stay local, they can do so.
Affordability is also important for our key workers. Recent events have shown just how much we all rely on key workers from doctors, nurses and hospital porters, to teachers, waste operatives and staff in our food shops and supermarkets. We owe them a debt of gratitude that can never be fully met, the least we can do is ensure they can make their homes throughout our district.
We are keen to be proactive in ensuring high quality homes for all residents, which is why:
- This will be a priority for St. Martin’s Park
- We are in discussions with a number of national and international organisations who specialise in delivering homes of all tenures
- And why we have a programme to deliver new council housing across South Kesteven.
September will mark my first anniversary as Leader of South Kesteven District Council. The following month marks the publication of our Corporate Plan. It would not be appropriate for me to share details of our Corporate Plan yet, but I hope it will come as no surprise that housing for all our residents and economic growth is very much at the forefront of our ambitions.
I’d like to finish by touching on a political note. Some of you may be aware that the issue of devolution and local government reorganisation is well and truly back in the spotlight.
Personally, I am fully supportive of the Government’s direction of travel and I will be looking carefully at the devolution white paper when it is published in the autumn. As you would expect, high-level discussions are taking place and Leaders and chief executives from all of Lincolnshire’s local authorities are fully engaged in those discussions.
It is not yet clear what the future looks like. However, I am clear that at SKDC we will be continuing on our road to economic recovery, building on relationships and trust with our residents, businesses, and partners, that have been cemented by our shared experience of fighting the spread of Covid-19.
In doing so, we will build an environment for growth that serves present communities and future generations. I look forward to working with you to deliver our ambitious but achievable vision.