Uttlesford Council 'one of the best in the country'

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Media captionOpposition councillors accept that things have improved in Uttlesford but warn that not everything is rosy

When Local Government Minister Brandon Lewis talks to councils about cutting costs and being more efficient he has a number of examples from the East which he likes to quote.

He tells them about Breckland in Norfolk, which shares its chief executive with two other authorities and about Daventry and South Norfolk who are making money from renting out property. All these measures allow the authorities to keep down council tax.

Now he has another council to crow about - Uttlesford. It's an authority in Essex normally associated with issues over expansion at Stansted but now it's being feted in government circles as one of the best run authorities in the country.

Six years ago it was days away from declaring itself bankrupt. Now it has taken £2m out of its annual spending. It can afford to cut council tax, build council homes and set aside £750,000 for big society projects.

"What's impressive here is that they haven't wasted time worrying about what they should and shouldn't do. They've just got on and done the job, made some tough decisions early on but turned things around," said Mr Lewis.

"Now they've got strong reserves, they're building council houses and cutting council tax.

"It's a great example to other councils of what can be done, It's a good example of that go-getting kind of attitude which delivers for local people."

Sleepless nights

Problems in 2007 led to several senior officers being dismissed and the Conservatives took over from the Liberal Democrats.

"There were quite a few sleepless nights when we took over," says the Conservative Council Leader Jim Ketteridge.

"We were within weeks of needing government intervention because we couldn't meet our commitments and as the weeks went by we found things were even worse than we thought."

He admits turning round the authority was painful but necessary.

"We now have a stable financial situation and we hope not to have a council tax increase for the next two years.

"Despite taking £2m out of our revenue costs, we've not stopped doing anything, we've not cut any services and we're proud of that."

As well as slimming down the so-called back office, Uttlesford has also benefited from the government's new home bonus. It has already built or been given permission to build 3,000 homes over the last two years and plans to build another 3,000 by 2026.

It is also about to rent out some of its council office space to Essex social services.


Environmental groups like the Campaign to Protect Rural England are concerned about the policy of building new homes, often in rural areas, in return for government cash, while the local Liberal Democrats say in the hurry to build the homes there isn't always enough consultation with local communities.

Labour say Uttlesford can make big savings because it is a largely affluent area with few pockets of deprivation. It also has plenty of space for building new homes.

It points to urban areas like Norwich, Stevenage and Great Yarmouth where the councils have little space to expand and a lot of call on their services. It's not possible, they say, for every authority to be expected to be as successful as Uttlesford.

But Mr Lewis disagrees: "In any business, whether you're wealthy or not, you've got to look at your base line, at how your management is put together and make sure you're as efficient with people's money as you possibly can be.

"At the moment poorer councils are not moving fast enough at looking at how they're structuring their management and they're wasting money. It needs to be spent on services rather than officers."

In other words he's determined to see councils cut their budgets further and become more efficient.

Uttlesford is being held up as an example of how he believes it can be done.