5th Dec, 2016

Youngest council leader relishes challenge ahead

Joshua Godfrey 22nd Feb, 2016 Updated: 20th Oct, 2016

WORCESTERSHIRE County Council recently elected the youngest leader in the country when Coun Simon Geraghty was handed the top job.

Observer reporter Joshua Godfrey went to meet him and his deputy Coun Anthony Blagg to hear their vision for the future and the challenges facing County Hall.

‘OPTIMISTIC and upbeat’ are the words Worcestershire County Council’s new leadership team used to describe the future of the county.

But in these ‘challenging’ financial circumstances can they achieve their vision of better-paid jobs, less children in care and major infrastructure improvements?

“Our overall philosophy is making sure Worcestershire can grow and develop, but in a sustainable way while managing the council’s services so that we can still provide all those services that people experience every day,” Coun Geraghty said.

“We’re both very keen to focus on Worcestershire and not just on the services which we deliver, which are important and clearly there are budget challenges and pressures, but actually on making sure that we continue to shape positively Worcestershire into the future.

From the moment Coun Geraghty stepped up to the role his sole focus has been how to balance the budget and allocate the authority’s £330million cash pot across Worcestershire.

The authority has already found savings of £100million since 2010, however the 39-year-old has no doubt the next few years for the county will be ‘challenging’.

Despite this, the leadership don’t want the headline generating budget squeezes to define the council, rather policies and ideas which can grow Worcestershire’s economy.

One of those key economic boosters is to try and keep more young people in the county to create the businesses of the future, something Coun Blagg is passionate about.

“There is a lack of youngsters here who go off to university and then don’t come back and we want to encourage a lot more people to come back, set-up businesses, work for some of the World class businesses we’ve got here and then they will contribute to the economy,” he said.

Work will also go into ensuring the workforce of the future can be trained in the county with the technical skills to make sure Worcestershire’s economy isn’t left behind.

“In terms of education, its not just about university. The University of Worcester is important and other universities are too, but university technical colleges- we’re really keen on seeing those technical skills,” Coun Geraghty said.

“We’ll continue to promote apprenticeships and people with more technical and engineering skills because there a lot of jobs in that part of the economy that don’t need a degree and there are firms that are keen to have highly skilled people that may not have gone off to university.

Coun Geraghty expressed his hope two key infrastructure projects will be ‘pushed over the line’ during his tenure- dualling the Carrington Bridge and improving the A38.

“That corridor on the A38 is heavily constrained and it’s holding back jobs and housing growth as well,” he said.

“Those are two massive pieces. It’s £25million I think is required for the A38 and £70million on the Carrington Bridge, so just shy of £100million just for two projects alone.”

With 700 children currently in local authority care in Worcestershire, Coun Geraghty also wants to tackle the root causes of why so many end up in care.

“The numbers of children in care when I joined the authority 10 years ago was about 450, there are now over 700 and that’s heading up to 750,” he said.

“It doesn’t sound like a large number, but the impact on the budget has gone from something like £20million to in excess of £30million, that’s unsustainable.

“We can’t just not take those children into care if they need it.

“Through prevention and early help by working with families to nip those problems in the bud will hopefully try and bring down some of those budgets and mean we can sustain those services.”

Despite having to find £25million of savings each year until 2020, Coun Geraghty appears adamant he can make Worcestershire a better place to do business, live and visit.

As ever, the voters of Worcestershire will hold him to his word.