West Berkshire Council Weeknotes #76
A look back at the highlights of 2021.
We write this update at the end of the second week of 2022, which also marks two years since normal life began to change for us all. Many people will look back on 2021 and think about the difficulties it brought with it and while this is of course the case, there has been much to celebrate about the resilience and achievements of our community here in West Berkshire. We are proud of everything we've achieved as a team and wanted to use our first weeknote of the year to look back on some of 2021's more positive moments.
We were excited to be awarded a £1.7m grant from the Government's 'Get Building Fund' to enable us to connect local schools to full fibre broadband by March 2022. Our schools faced a difficult start to the year, with a new lockdown meaning that learning moved online for the district's children, so this was some very welcome good news. We also announced the winners of our Community Champion Awards, where we celebrated the extraordinary contributions local people have made in their area, outlined our plans for a new solar farm in the east of the district and began negotiations for an exciting new sports facility at Monks Lane, Newbury.
In February, we saw £14,000 donated to local good causes through the West Berkshire Lottery and we deployed Covid Marshalls on local high streets to support businesses and residents to trade safely. We were also proud to launch our Surviving to Thriving Fund, which focuses on mental health and wellbeing, jointly with Greenham Trust, and were pleased to see that our rate of young people not in employment, education or training (NEET) was among the lowest nationally.
This month we launched a number of new initiatives, including the appointment of our first ever Safer Streets Champion, the rollout of our popular Wildflower Verges Project, a new additional plastic recycling trial offering a wider range of options for residents, new Restart Grants to help businesses resume trading and our Environment Delivery Plan, which tracks progress of our journey towards carbon neutrality by 2030. March also marked the second anniversary of the West Berkshire Lottery which has helped local people to donate £124,000 to good causes, and saw 98% of local young people offered a place at one of their preferred secondary schools.
In April, we made further progress on some of our environmental projects as our Climate Bond was used to invest in the installation of solar panels, wildflower verges and other environmental projects, and our carbon reduction project at The Downs School was completed. Our libraries also welcomed back visitors this month and we launched our new Housing Strategy, which will ensure that new housing development in the district meets local need.
Our Welcome Back Grant, which included our own match-funded Grant for Small Businesses, launched this month and was awarded to a number of local businesses to fund events, new equipment and other initiatives to assist their successful re-opening. We also re-opened Shaw House and the West Berkshire Museum and announced that we would be part-funding the Waterside Centre in Newbury, which opened later in the year in October, helping to create an exciting new facility for local young people.
In June, we focussed on our plans for our high streets, launching the second phase of our Newbury Town Centre Vision survey and confirming investment in similar exercises in other towns. We were also proud to see our Climate Bond nominated for two national awards, the re-opening of the Lido and Birchwood Care Home being rated 'Good' following an inspection by the CQC.
July brought with it further success, with our Smart Cities project- which uses innovative technology to tackle climate change, prevent falls in elderly people and address social isolation- was nominated for an award, and further national figures being published which showed our NEET figures the 7th lowest in England. We also awarded £112,852 in Welcome Back funding, extended Free School Meal vouchers through the summer holidays and received a 'Good' Ofsted rating for Castlegate School.
During a busy August we successfully secured a temporary injunction to halt illegal development at Lawrences Lane, hosted holiday activities for children who are eligible for free school meals and submitted a planning application for the proposed new Sports Hub in Newbury. We also continued to roll out our Welcome Back Grants, and local GCSE and A Level students achieved some brilliant results, which is all the more impressive given the situation at the time.
Equally busy was September, when we welcomed almost 200 Afghan refugees who had previously served with the British Forces to local hotels and supported them to settle into the UK, helped by a match-funded donations appeal from Greenham Trust. Our Smart Cities project also won a further award, we celebrated sustainability during Great Green Week and announced a new operator for our car club, making greener travel options available for local people.
This month we launched our Resident Survey, which we will use to inform our new Council Strategy, and awarded the contract for the installation of full fibre broadband in our schools. We also began accepting paper tubes and other new types of food containers at our Recycling Centres, giving residents even more opportunity to recycle their waste and launched our 'Shop Green' magazine, which encouraged residents to shop locally and sustainably during the festive period.
In November, we launched digital permits for our Household Waste Recycling Centres. Almost 10,000 residents signed up in the first few weeks, eliminating the need for paper permits and saving on postage costs. We also launched our Social Value Policy, which will ensure that anyone providing goods or services to the council considers the economic, environmental and social impact of their business and marked White Ribbon Day, a campaign for the end of violence towards women.
We also secured permanent homes in the district for three Afghan families fleeing the situation in Afghanistan and opened new facilities at Speenhamland School. Further progress, too, on our environmental objectives as we celebrated COP26 and installed new carbon-saving lighting in Newbury Library.
There was no time for slowing down in the run up to Christmas. We were very proud that an independent count confirmed that the number of rough sleepers in the district has reduced to zero. This is a milestone achievement and is testament to years of hard work alongside our partners. We also launched our new Additional Restrictions Challenge Fund Grant, which will award funding to local businesses working to make themselves more sustainable or increase their digital presence, and welcomed a new elected member, Cllr Biyi Oloko, following the Tilehurst South and Holybrook by-election.
We hope you will agree that in spite of the pandemic we have been working hard to serve our community and to keep local people safe. If you would like to hear more about our work, we would encourage you to sign up to our e-bulletin. This goes out weekly and provides important information about the support available to residents as well as up to date information about the services we provide.
We wish you, your family and friends a happy, healthy 2022.