This month marks Cheshire West and Chester Council’s third birthday. David Norbury looks at the progress it is making on its key objectives and its aims for the future, including in Ellesmere Port

After voters swept the Tories into power in 2008 former Chester lord mayor Cllr Mike Jones found himself with the unenviable task of creating a new council from scratch.

Effectively he had only nine months in which to bring together half of the former Cheshire County Council, dating to the end of the 19th century, and three district councils in Mid and West Cheshire, formed in 1974.

He quickly recruited the chief executive of Stoke City Council, Steve Robinson, later described as ‘exactly the right man for the job’.

Another move had seen the former leader of Vale Royal, Cllr Les Ford, take over the incoming council’s resources portfolio as well as the deputy leadership of the new authority.

Fast forward a few months and Cllr Ford revealed his first budget, which protected front-line services and delivered almost £30m of savings, with an average council tax rise of 1.6%.

Unsure as to what he would find in the outgoing councils’ books, Cllr Ford pointed out his package was ‘transitional’.

The new council threw open its doors on April 1, 2009, promising ‘a fresh and energetic approach to providing top- quality services for its many customers and communities’.

Part of that approach was to quickly shed more than 1,000 of the jobs inherited from the previous councils in a bid to out manoeuvre the approaching financial downturn.

When they first met the Press in early autumn 2008, in the office of former county council chief executive Jeremy Taylor, Cllr Jones and Cllr Ford, along with the new chief executive, were pointing to the possible need to save £15m.

Today’s figures highlight the pace and of change faced by the council, which set its ambition to become ‘efficient and effective’ as one of three key aims.

By the time of the next elections, in May 2015, it expects to have taken almost £130m out of its costs over its first two terms, with more than £80m of savings already achieved. Of these, £34m have been reinvested in front-line services as part of the council’s ambition to become one of the best in the country.

“Part of this has been invested in areas such as children’s services and adult social care,” said Cllr Jones.

He insists the council will continue with its efficiency agenda – not a cuts agenda – ensuring it is delivering value for money.

His second strategic objective was to invest in the borough’s infrastructure.

The current financial year has seen an additional £10m spent on roads, with more than 100km of resurfacing.

It is investing in schools and elderly care facilities, with nearly £50m of Government backing having been won for academies in Ellesmere Port and Winsford.

Cllr Jones suggests Cheshire West and Chester is the only council in the country to have an outline 10-year investment plan.

He said: “If you do have a long-term plan in place, such as our 10-year vision, it becomes possible to develop a long-term funding plan and to do this without any increase in council tax above inflation.”

The council has a planned capital spend next year of more than £70m, apart from the £112m it expects to spend in the next three years on its ‘capital vision’ schemes.

Sports facilities in which it is investing include a replacement for the Ellesmere Port Epic.

This leads on to the third objective, of regeneration.

The investment strategy will help encourage visitors to city and town centres during the day, with families attracted to cultural facilities in the evening.

Cllr Jones said: “What we have to do is take a multi-strand approach, looking at ways in which we can work in the short term to get jobs in and how local people can benefit from those jobs.”

He cites the Marks & Spencer flagship store at Cheshire Oaks, opening this year, which will take on 90 long-term unemployed in the area.

“Most importantly where we are talking about regeneration in Ellesmere Port, we are talking about stopping the loan sharks, stopping the drugs, stopping the anti-social behaviour, working in the communities and improving people’s health,” he said.

Cllr Jones believes the whole ethos of Ellesmere Port will massively improve in the next 20 years.

A supporter of the Government’s Localism Act, he added: “What they are saying is if you as a community want to see development or not then it’s your choice within a Local Plan framework.”

Although the details have yet to be drawn up in urban areas, communities accepting development can be rewarded through a national ‘New Homes Bonus’ initiative which will make funds available to solve local problems.

Looking to the elections in just more than three years time, expected to be strongly challenged by the reinvigorated Labour opposition, Cllr Jones said: “In 2015 generally people will only vote for change if they think the current administration is lacklustre and stale.

“We have been consistent all the way through and I think we have a very exciting agenda.”

Independent outside bodies appear to support his optimism.

The council is the only one of its type in the country to be selected by the Government to take part in a pilot for transforming the delivery of public services.

And district auditor Judith Tench has described it as having a ‘good track record’ in delivering savings with plans in place to manage the reductions in Government grant ‘and to deliver more for less in the future’.