The beginning of a New Year is often a time for reflection but can also bring new hope.
There is no doubt that 2021 was another very eventful and challenging year, filled with uncertainty for many of us. There are still many unknowns ahead of us in 2022, but I am confident that together as a county we will rise to the challenges that we face.
I am truly heartened and thankful for the way in which residents, businesses and all of our partners across Kent have continued to show such incredible determination and resilience throughout the pandemic. I also thank all KCC staff for their hard work on behalf of all residents. Their dedication to their roles, often in the most difficult of circumstances, has been amazing.
Most remarkable, perhaps, has been the role of volunteers. We have clearly seen how willing so many people are in coming forward to offer help in times of crisis. Possibly the only positive to have come out of the pandemic is the way that it has brought our communities so much closer together. The army of volunteers across Kent has been such a vital part of our response to Covid-19, and they will be just as important to us all in the coming months as they have been over the last two years.
Later this month we will be launching our Civil Society Strategy, which will further strengthen our relationship with the voluntary sector and build on the collaboration and community spirit that has been so evident during the pandemic.
Our Kent Together scheme has done so much to support vulnerable people who have needed urgent help, supplies, medication – or just a friendly voice at the end of a phone. The focus now is to help those in financial difficulty and to signpost them to the help available in whichever part of the county they live.
This scheme is a collaboration between KCC, central government, district, borough and local councils, the voluntary and community sector and all our other partners in the Kent Resilience Forum. As partners working together we were, and still are, able to ensure that valuable help and support is at hand for the most vulnerable people in Kent.
Although the pandemic is still far from over, as we have seen with the emergence of the new Omicron variant, we must look positively to the future and take encouragement from the huge progress made in the vaccination programme.
We stand shoulder to shoulder with the NHS in encouraging everyone to come forward to be vaccinated. This coming summer we will be finalising the Kent and Medway Integrated Care System Development Plan, which will see us working even more closely with the NHS and other partners and enable us to more effectively tackle health inequality and improve health and wellbeing across the whole of our population.
KCC continues to look forward, not back, and we are focussed on the county’s economic, social and environmental recovery. This means addressing the economic opportunities for Kent, the right infrastructure, the environment and public services that are sustainable and meet residents’ changing needs.
We will continue to support businesses, the backbone of Kent’s economy and future. The Kent and Medway Growth Hub has already helped thousands of companies adjust to difficult and challenging times. The scheme has received nearly 20,000 calls for advice about grant applications, furlough arrangements, Covid-19 safety measures and one-to-one advice sessions on available support.
Alongside our partners in the Kent Resilience Forum we will continue to plan for the momentous changes still ahead as a county on the frontline of EU exit.
A year ago, when the borders were suddenly closed and new Covid-19 testing requirements introduced overnight because of what was then called the Kent variant, the forum had to react quickly to set up emergency testing sites, make use of Manston Airport as a lorry park for thousands of vehicles and do everything possible to get hauliers and tourists through the border.
There are still challenges ahead, with new requirements and border checks being introduced this January and further changes to come, but we will continue to work together with all our resilience partners to manage any future challenges on our vital cross-Channel routes. We will also continue, on behalf of everyone who lives, works and travels in Kent, to make our case to Government for future-ready, and future-proofed, smart borders in Kent.
Throughout the last two years KCC has been a trusted partner to Government in delivering the best possible outcomes for our residents, businesses and communities – maintaining our most vital core services; from Public Health, to education, to transport and social care. It is now time to look to the longer term. Two years ago, we were completing our council plan, focused on sustainable growth, the right infrastructure and a stronger society. That had to be suspended as a result of the Covid-19 crisis, and we have worked with an interim plan throughout 2021. We will consult on a comprehensive new plan and publish it in spring 2022.
Against a backdrop of intense financial pressure this is not an easy task, but across the authority we are changing the way we work to become a more modern, effective and efficient council which is delivering the best value services it possibly can for tax-payers. Inevitably some very difficult decisions lie ahead, but we are setting out plans over several years to ensure that we are on a financially sustainable path to support our services
With COP26 still fresh in our minds, our journey towards Net Zero emissions by 2050 for Kent and Medway, and reducing greenhouse gas emissions from our own estate and activities to Net Zero by 2030, is ever-more urgent. So is our focus on adaptation to enable the county and our residents to respond to the impacts of global climate change. We will continue to prioritise our work around committing resources and aligning our policies to support these aims. Cutting carbon emissions brings health, wellbeing and economic benefits and we will embed climate change actions in everything we do.
I am certain that 2022 will bring its own challenges but, having seen the incredible way in which our communities have come together to support each other, coupled with KCC’s robust strategy to maintain and deliver the services that our residents need and deserve, we can, and will, move towards a brighter future.
I would like to wish everyone a very happy, peaceful and hopeful New Year.