Last month we were honoured to pick up the prestigious MJ Award for Local Authority of the Year on behalf of everyone at Waltham Forest Council.
Whilst this has certainly been a landmark year for us, with achievements such as becoming London's first Borough of Culture and the roll out of an entirely new approach to putting our community in the driving seat, we really see this as recognition of many years of work.
In 2010 our children’s services were in intervention for the second time in a decade; we had five chief executives in six years and were in desperate need of stability.
We believe our win is a result of nearly a decade of relentless focus and grip; taking tough financial decisions early, not moaning about the money and inspiring a culture of constantly looking for new ways of providing better services with £120m less per annum and 30% less staff.
Our 2018 LGA financial peer review found the council to be in a very strong financial position and able to resource the long term, and our children’s services are now rated by Ofsted as ‘good with outstanding features in leadership’. Innovation plays a significant part as well and to take just one example, 81 percent of our service transactions are now carried out online, delivering £3m savings every year.
This doesn’t mean that significant challenges don’t remain – from youth violence to poverty. But we are tackling these challenges with the same boldness that we took our tough decisions a decade ago.
On violence we’ve put extra investment in our gang prevention work and have recently brought partners together from police, health, education and the voluntary sector to redouble our efforts towards a single plan of action.
From ensuring that all those young people arrested in the borough get a mental health assessment; to tackling the underlying causes of violence on our streets; to ensuring 10,000 of our 8-13 year olds get Life Skills training that looks at building their resilience to prevent mental health and crime problems in the future. It’s an approach that involves our young people and listens to their needs.
On other big issues like air quality, we’ve always taken an evidence based approach to tough decision making. In the past year we’ve proven that our Mini Holland work to improve the road infrastructure and promote walking and cycling has both increased people’s physical activity and Kings College University independently proved that someone born today in our borough will live an extra six weeks due to the changes we’ve made.
But the work of a council is not just about people, it’s also about place. Our focus has also been to develop the homes, create the jobs and drive the investment that our borough needs, helping to foster the buzz around our corner of North East London.
In doing so we have taken bold decisions: investing in William Morris Gallery, building a new station in Lea Bridge, and working with Thames Water to open up Walthamstow Wetlands, the largest urban wetlands in Europe, which now receives 500,000 visitors each year.
We are now in the process of creating the largest comedy venue outside the west end in partnership with Soho Theatre. The EMD Cinema will require £17m investment but will return an estimated £52 million over the next ten years to the local economy and return an iconic site to the local community that once graced artists the like the Beatles and Johnny Cash.
Then, in the past year, we were named the first ever Mayor’s London’s Borough of Culture. For us this was the culmination of our journey. We have already had over 100,000 residents attend an event and have over three quarters of school children involved in cultural activities created by people as iconic as Matthew Bourne, Damon Albarn and Zara Hussein.
Finally, but most importantly, we simply would not have won our award without our fantastic team built with a common purpose across officers and councillors alike.
This award is a testament to their bravery and dedication as much as anything that we have done as leader and chief executive. To ensure our staff are driven and fulfilled, we’ve also increased our support to them as well. Last year we were the first organisation to allow new parents maternity and paternity leave to start when the baby left hospital, at full pay. A huge impact to staff and their families in their hour of need.
We know that significant challenges remain but we will not rest on our laurels. As an organisation we will continue to strive to do everything we can do to provide the best service we can with the resources we have for our residents.
Martin Esom is chief executive of Waltham Forest Council and Cllr Clare Coghill is council leader