Charlton Kings Parish Council - Chair's Annual Report 2021-22 from Cllr Rob Williams
This will be my final Annual Report to the Parish Meeting as Chair of Charlton Kings Parish Council, and it reflects the enormous variety of opportunities and challenges that councillors and staff have faced in delivering our business, on behalf of our community, while coping with another year of disruptions as a result of Covid-19.
The legislation allowing Council meetings and committee meetings to be held remotely ended on 7th May 2021, so all meetings this year have been held, in person, in the Stanton Hall and been open to members of the public.
Our parish office has been open to the public almost every weekday since September 2020. Staff now work to a hybrid pattern with some time working from home, but between the hours of 10.00 am and 2.00 pm, there has always been someone in the office to talk to. We consider this to be an essential part of our service.
It is important to acknowledge that our councillors receive no annual allowance for their service and act in a voluntary capacity for the benefit of all. We have thanked four retiring members for their service this year and welcomed Raj Gandhi and Alan Hawkins as new councillors. Councillors maintained an impressive attendance record at Council Meetings again this year, despite inevitable absences due to Covid. In 11 months to March, councillors were present 150 times from 179 possible attendances, with 56 unavoidable absences where apologies were made and accepted. On only 3 occasions was one councillor absent without having tendered an apology.
The Parish Council will lose three long-serving councillors in May 2022, who are leaving to enjoy a second 'retirement', after a combined service of 34 years. I am one, but I would like to publicly thank my two exceptional colleagues.
The first is Cllr Clive Hodges, who has served for two full 4-year terms on Council and has been the rock on which, with our Clerk, our impeccable record of perfect annual finance audits has been built. He has been a constant source of well-considered comment and advice, and his imprint is left on Council's achievements. I look forward to continuing our association, watching The Robins.
Cllr Rob Reid is the longest-serving councillor since Charlton Kings Parish Council was created in 1995. He joined Council in 2008, when it was a shadow of the organisation it has become, and has contributed his enthusiasm, charm, and determination to get practical results achieved over all this time. As a long-serving Trustee of the Kings Hall Youth and Community Centre, for years he maintained both the building and the services it offered. He will continue to advise on improvements to the parish's considerable Rights of Way network, which has been the most recent focus of his achievements.
Charlton Kings has been fortunate to have two such committed public servants working on its behalf.
A newly-elected Parish Council will take its place for a 4-year term, from 5th May 2022 to May 2026. Twelve councillors stood again for election, and with two residents standing for the first time, all were elected unopposed. Our Council has a full complement of 17, so there will be the opportunity to co-opt three new councillors, who can bring different skills, knowledge, and experience to deliver Council's business over the next four years.
Although some of what we do involves the maintenance and improvement of physical infrastructure, the Council is essentially a service organisation that supports others in the community to achieve their objectives. As forecast in last year's report, we have strengthened our administrative team, and appointed a Community Development Officer. Her wide-ranging role is to develop our links with community organisations and partners, and to promote our own, and others', activities through our improved website, monthly newsletter, and social media posts.
We spend half our total income on employing four part-time staff and are extremely appreciative of their commitment to the Council's work. This year, we introduced a more professional staff reporting and reward system that offers pay progression based on excellent performance, assessed by an interim and an annual performance review.
Identifying our priorities
Reflecting the value that we have identified from two previous events, we held two strategy away days in October and November 2021 at the Civil Service Sports Club, away from our usual meeting places. Our discussions were necessary because we needed to ensure that councillors' aspirations to create positive outcomes for our parish were matched with our capacity to fund them, and to service their delivery by both councillors and staff.
In my report last year, I drew attention to the gap between the size of our parish, its needs, and the funding available to the Parish Council through its Precept. Although we are the fourth largest Town or Parish Council in Gloucestershire, in 2021/22 we levied the fourth smallest Precept of the group of largest Councils. In preparing our budget for 2022/23, we held several, difficult, meetings of our Finance and General Purposes Committee, but after vigorous and challenging debates we agreed to ask an average Council Taxpayer to increase their contributions to Parish Council finances by £5.90, to £35.40. Even with the additional expenditure on Covid-related issues, your Council has sound finances and having voted not to take forward the Kings Hall refurbishment project, has been able to restore its reserves nearly to pre-Covid levels by reallocating set-aside funds into our general reserve.
We have recognised the importance of demonstrating to residents that their funding of the Parish Precept is properly used and accounted for. The National Association of Local Councils (NALC) has previously awarded us the Foundation and Quality Awards under their Local Council Award Scheme, and in December 2021, NALC awarded us the top, Quality Gold Award. In their words, this demonstrates that we are "at the forefront of best practice by achieving an excellent standard in community governance, community leadership and performance management."
A summary of how we plan to spend your money is shown below, and a full programme, with detailed budgets, is on our website.
Our Precept income in 2021/22 was £146,000 and will increase to £177,000 in 2022/23. This year, we took £26,000 from reserves to support planned levels of spending and will need to take a further £20,000 in 2022/23 (although the general reserve will be restored from the Kings Hall fund). After a year when we have received little hiring income from the Stanton Hall, and no emergency pandemic support funding from government as the Borough and County Councils have, we will nevertheless keep our hire charges at a competitive level.
Our allotments have always needed support from the Precept, but after years of sustained investment in improvements, they now pay their own running costs, although we keep a wary eye on the possible need for significant repairs to the water supply.
We received a welcome windfall of £9,000 from the Community Infrastructure Levy (CIL) this year, and were awarded £21,000 from Gloucestershire County Council's 'Growing our Communities' fund to support improvements to Grange Field and the MUGA. National Grid's funding for landscape and biodiversity enhancement works on our commons gave us £66,000 in 2021/22 and in 2022/23 we will receive a further £59,000. We will continue to seek external grants to support our important projects and reduce our call on Precept income.
As a result of our increased number of projects and activities, we have reorganised our committee structure this year. In particular, the Community Development Committee has been separated into two Standing Committees – for Community Assets, and Community Engagement and Wellbeing
Finance and General Purposes Committee
Our Finance and General Purposes Committee continues to oversee Council's finances, working with the Clerk/Responsible Financial Officer. It now has just one subcommittee – Personnel, which has oversight of staff reporting and reward matters.
Our Planning Committee has delegated authority to comment on all planning applications on behalf of Council. Our recommendations are made to Cheltenham Borough Council, whose planning committee is responsible for final decisions at a local level. Our two-weekly meetings are open to the public, who are given the opportunity to make brief contributions on applications that might affect them. Over the last 12 months, the Committee has considered 249 applications, including a few relating to Tree Preservation Orders. It raised no objections to 229 (92%), including 16 where supplementary comments were submitted where an outright objection was felt to be inappropriate
Our Allotments Committee oversees our four allotment sites and 250+ allotments. Although technically an 'asset', this is a specialist area of work and needs to consider a wide range of matters in some detail, as well as consulting with allotment holders. The strong demand to take on an allotment during lockdowns last year has continued, and we have a healthy waiting list.
We were delighted to be able to hold our annual allotments competition again this year. Councillors and the Allotments Officer made the shortlisting inspections in June, and we were grateful, as ever, to our three independent judges who decided on the order of award winners on 5th July. The awards evening on 11th September was again a great success, and we had a new winner of the Ted Jarrett memorial Rose Bowl trophy for the best allotment in Charlton Kings.
Friends of Charlton Kings have continued to develop their Community Allotment at Sappercombe, and to work with new gardeners on the easy access plots. These new facilities are now an important part of CK Health Connect's social prescribing offer in Charlton Kings.
Community Assets Committee
Our Community Assets Committee is a new Standing Committee takes responsibility for the maintenance and enhancement of community assets owned by the Parish Council and assets for which the Council has a legal responsibility, together with those in which the Parish Council has a shared interest with other parties. Most of its work is accomplished through a series of working groups.
Roads and transport Our quarterly liaison meetings with Gloucestershire Highways (GH), which are also attended by some of our County and Borough Councillors, have continued to provide an important forum where we can discuss highway priorities in Charlton Kings.
The most important development this year has been our campaign to create a permanent 40 mph speed restriction on the A 40 from the Charlton Kings Hotel to the Dowdeswell junction. We have the support of Cheltenham's MP, every councillor representing Charlton Kings (and the County and District Councillors over the border in Cotswold District), The Woodland Trust, Dunkertons Cider Company, and other businesses along this stretch of road. We received 390 completed public consultation questionnaires, with 85% being in favour. We have paid for a week of traffic speed/volume monitoring, and the next step is to meet with the County Council's Traffic Regulation Order team to discuss a new, permanent TRO.
Frustratingly, our CK Futures projects to encourage more EV charging points and to set up a community car-hire in Church Piece car park, have each failed to produce results, as we have found that we do not have sufficient leverage to persuade our local authority partners to move forward.
Footpaths and Bridleways Public Rights of Way are part of the parish's highways network, and there has once again been very effective liaison with the County Rights of Way Officer to deliver some major improvements. Our 'Footpath Guardians' continue to walk and inspect all routes and update the schedule of path condition and infrastructure requirements.
After several years of inactivity, we finally managed to promote a meeting between County and Borough Council representatives, to assess the repair of the bridge over the old railway line to Old Pats field, we are hopeful of progress in 2022/23. We are always pleased to receive reports of where repairs or improvements are needed.
Grange Field We have learned useful lessons about how to consult on proposals that we thought would be welcomed, but which needed more thought and engagement with the residents who would be most directly affected. As a result, we have been able to agree a number of improvements that have public support. At the end of the year, the new SUDS paths were laid to create all-weather access between the ATC car park and Church Piece, and across to Buckles Close. Some simple wooden balancing equipment for younger children has been installed, and the asphalt area by the MUGA marked out with multi-use pitch markings and games. There are also a new basketball hoop and an outside table tennis table. These improvements have been funded by the generous grant from the County Council and a small part of our CIL windfall
Sadly, it was not possible to hold our, now traditional, Summer Fayre, but an Autmn Fayre had been long planned and turned out to be a great event in brilliant September sunshine. We look forward to holding both events in 2022.
Kings Hall Last year, we reported that the Council had concerns about the affordability of the solution we had been pursuing for several years. We commissioned a professional condition survey, which highlighted the poor state of the building, necessitating unaffordable works to make it viable in the long term. Council was not able to satisfactorily progress discussions with its potential partners in this project and at its meeting in September 2021, it resolved not to engage further in discussions with the owners and tenant of the hall. Council acknowledged the huge amount of time and energy that councillors and staff had expended on this project, but emphasised that, with budget pressures and an increasing need for Council to focus its attentions on other priority projects, it could no longer consider taking the lead role in securing the future of this building.
St. Mary's churchyard We celebrated a very successful first year's partnership with the Parochial Church Council in delivering the management of the trees and lawns of St. Mary's churchyard. Sadly, we had to carry out emergency works to the massive Western Red Cedar which had cracked a major branch and presented a significant hazard. The work was carried out within two weeks, although it has left an unavoidable ugly scar. More attractive works were carried out to the Blue Atlas Cedar, and to all the Irish Yews, which have been straight cut across their crowns to restore the traditional churchyard topiary shapes.
Work was undertaken to replace some of the roof tiles of the Lych Gate canopy, and it is clear that significant further works will be required to the structure in the near future.
Restoring Cheltenham's Escarpment Grasslands Having prepared work programmes in anticipation of the award of the Landscape Enhancement Initiative grant, it was frustrating to have to wait until the end of August for the money to arrive. Nevertheless, the joint steering group, with representatives from the Parish Council, Borough Council, FOLK, and the Cotswolds National Landscape has made great progress and completed most of the projects planned for this year. £40,000 was spent on wall rebuilding, footpath repairs, scrub management on all sites, water supply, and the purchase of a 'cattle crush' to manage the magnificent British White, and English Longhorn cattle that winter-graze Leckhampton Hill and Charlton Kings Common.
The project has also purchased 'No Fence' collars for the cattle, which allow them to be confined to specific areas without physical fencing. A further £59,000 will be available next year, when the programmes will link to the CK Futures' 'We are Nature' project.
Church Piece Precinct improvement project The various elements of this project have taken a long time to complete, so we are very pleased and relieved to see the the work to repair and re-paint all the walls and benches, refurbish the wooden seating, and improve the lighting, in place. The 'porthole' bench lights cannot be economically replaced, and so a replacement light has been installed above the hall/library entrance, which throws a better light over the precinct to improve public safety.
Community Engagement and Wellbeing Committee
Our Community Engagement and Wellbeing Committee is another new standing committee. As well as overseeing our day to day communications through our website, social media posts, and monthly newsletter, through its Communications Working Group, this new committee has charge of our major projects that have developed over the life of this Council.
CK Futures Since its creation in October 2019, the Parish Council's CK Futures project – Connecting People, Climate and Environment - has grown to become an exemplar of the way in which information, advice, and opportunities can be presented to people to guide their choices in addressing Climate Change, tackling the Biodiversity Crisis, and enjoying the activities they choose to take on. The initial strategy, published in July 2020, was rightly ambitious and set a range of very specific targets for the Council and the community. The project undertook a full review this year, celebrating its many successes, acknowledging where the Council was not in a position to make things happen, and putting forward a new set of Aims that were agreed by Council in January 2022.
Its many outstanding innovations include:
- A 'Measuring your Carbon Footprint' campaign with coloured plastic 'footprints' in Church Piece, Sixways, and Cox's Meadow.
- Monthly webinars during lockdown and seminars since, on climate issues – CheltenhamZero, the role of agriculture, plastic recycling, composting, electric vehicles; and with more planned.
- Sustainable living workshops – offering local people guidance and debate on food, transport, and more.
- A food waste campaign, with associated podcasts, and no waste vegetarian cookery demonstrations.
- Eco-Exchange - re-imagining Cheltenham's twinning arrangements with Annecy, Sochi, and others, initially through school eco-exchanges with Balcarras and Pate's.
- Partnerships with Vision 21, Planet Cheltenham, The Front at Sixways, and Cheltenham Borough Council.
- A new campaign for 2022 – 'We are Nature', that will incorporate and build on many existing environmental projects.
Accepting that our Council has taken positive action and made some progress towards being a leader in carbon reduction, Charlton Kings Parish Council declared Climate Emergency on 28th February 2022.
CK Health Connect This year, we have again significantly developed our CK Health Connect partnership, and taken it to new levels of cooperation and leadership. Having established the principles behind the project and illustrated its role in our community, last year's report referred to the importance of Phase 2 of this project, which has established what residents and the service providers needed to navigate through the Covid-19 transition period as restrictions eased. Our website has updated the Health and Wellbeing Directory, which continues to provide a comprehensive guide to activities, services, and support in and around Charlton Kings.
The project has collaborated with the local IT Schools Africa charity, to bring its 'Digi Bus' to Church Piece to, as we thought, provide a service to older people at risk of 'Digital Exclusion'. In the event, the places were snapped up by young people, which we were pleased to see, but indicated that we need to re-think what services we need to offer to our older community, and, most importantly, where.
A key focus this year has been on supporting our young people. The Community Open Meeting in September was perhaps the most dynamic and positive yet and included reporting on the results of our major survey of Balcarras students and their post-pandemic concerns, views, and aspirations. It included helpful interactions by a number of young people, who didn't pull their punches in telling us what they needed and wanted. The Council has invested £10,000 this year in supporting the Inspire to Aspire outreach work across Cheltenham, and delivering a new youth club in Charlton Kings, which was top of the list of young people's demands.
Despite Charlton Kings again being identified by a national newspaper as one of the best places in the UK to live, antisocial behaviour continues to impact residents. Some is minor and mindless, but elements are relatively serious and we have welcomed our Local Policing Team's lead, drawing together all the interested parties as a new 'Youth Task Force' in which we are a major partner.
Summary of the year
Above everything else, it has been important for the Council to be able to demonstrate that we have used the Precept to deliver relevant and worthwhile services to our community. We are therefore proud that NALC has awarded us their Gold Award this year, demonstrating that we meet the national standard. From 6th May, a new Parish Council will take office and its councillors will continue to serve our beautiful and diverse parish, to ensure that it remains one of the best places in Britain to live.
Cllr Rob Williams - Chair of Charlton Kings Parish Council
Our most recent Annual Parish Meeting took place on 21st April 2022. For those members of the public who were unable to attend, the Chair's Report on 2021-22, which provides a review of the Parish Council's work in 2021-22, and other key documents from the meeting can be accessed below.