12:26PM, Friday 04 October 2019
The new council leader has spoken of the challenges ahead as he takes over during a critical time for the Royal Borough.
A damning review of the council’s finances, expected changes to the Borough Local Plan and managing the ongoing regeneration of Maidenhead are some of the
issues Cllr Andrew Johnson (Con, Hurley and Walthams) will need to get to grips with.
He has taken the reins following Simon Dudley’s abrupt resignation last month, having only been elected in May.
“Some people would say it’s a challenge, I see it as an opportunity,” he told the Express last week.
“I look outside today, a sunny day, I see the cranes in the sky, I see the work that Simon’s (Dudley) started and I think to myself it’s morning again in Maidenhead. It literally is. The opportunity presenting itself is phenomenal.”
Cllr Johnson, 40, who works in corporate communications, moved to the borough two years ago and was a councillor at Hammersmith and Fulham from 2006-2014.
He said he is a prudent, low-tax Conservative and told councillors at a meeting last week that he has a different style of leadership to his often-divisive predecessor.
The council has faced a highly critical report on its financial management from the Chartered Institute for Public Finance and Accountancy, including a series of recommendations to ensure it manages its spending better and complies with legislation.
The borough is also forecasting a £4m overspend.
Cllr Johnson said it is implementing the recommendations and added: “The number one challenge is dealing with the finances, getting them back onto a stable footing, both in terms of day-to-day spending and our longer-term projects.”
Some major capital projects will be ‘put on hold’ and ‘every project in the book’ will be reviewed ‘line by line’, he said.
His cabinet has been instructed to find ‘future savings’ and look at opportunities to raise more money – though not through council tax or hikes in charges.
“I suppose the mantra that I would put out to all officers and cabinet members going forward is your budget limit is a limit and not a target,” Cllr Johnson said, adding he believed Mr Dudley had ‘broadly’ got financial decisions right.
He also stressed the importance of getting the Borough Local Plan approved. The development guide has stalled after its inspector raised a num-ber of questions and will likely need changes to be approved at a full council meeting this month.
He wants to ensure the borough has a ‘proper’ development plan in place, instead of being ‘at the mercy’ of developers and views the plan as an ‘opportunity’.
On regeneration, he said: “In terms of moving forward, regeneration can only be delivered by consent. It shouldn’t be done to people; we’ve got to take people with us, and it’s all about not necessarily regenerating the area, it’s about creating a new place.”
As to the future, he said: “I want us to continue to be a low-tax borough.
“I want us to be a borough that is forward thinking and innovative, that has delivered upon our manifesto commitments, particularly around keeping the weekly bin collection, etcetera.”
He added that he wanted a borough that retains all that is good about its cultural heritage.
“We’ve got to curate that underlying culture. It really is fantastic, a phenomenal asset,” he said.
Joining Cllr Johnson’s leadership team are Cllr Samantha Rayner (Con, Eton and Castle), who becomes the deputy leader of the council, and Cllr Stuart Carroll (Con, Boyn Hill), who is now deputy chairman of the council’s cabinet.
Cllr Carroll said: “I think Andrew’s a very passionate, dynamic person.
“I think he has a very clear vision for the whole borough. I think that’s critical in politics. You need to be able to project and say not just what are the challenges today but where do we actually want to go in five years, and where do we want to see this wonderful borough in 10 years?”
Cllr Carroll reiterated the council needs to communicate well with residents, who he said ‘are the boss’ with councillors ‘the servants’.
Cllr Rayner said Cllr Johnson is the ‘right person’ to bring the borough’s Tories together and said the area is ‘on the precipice of a very exciting future’.
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