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Six months on

Last week I finished my first six months as Leader of the council. I was pleased to have passed this milestone with the news that we are to get £18million to spend on our primary schools across the borough. We will use this money to make sure that every child in our borough is guaranteed a place in a local primary school.

I have enjoyed doing this job over the last six months. Taking over as Leader in the middle of a recession brought about its own challenges, and even though we have less money than before, we were able to freeze council tax and not cut any services. I want this council to be penny and pound wise and to cut out all waste.

I have met some amazing people across the borough over the last six months and the thing that I enjoy the most about this job, is meeting and working with local people to solve the problems we face.

The thing that annoys me most is when people in the media have a go at our borough, trying to bring the place down. Barking and Dagenham is a good area to live and we have a lot to be proud of here.

Last month I had the honour of unveiling a statue of Job Drain, a Victoria Cross medal winner, who was born, lived and died in our borough. As well as the statue, we also unveiled blue plaques to all the Victorian Cross winners from our borough. As a borough I believe we should continue to honour those who have served their country and neighbourhood.

As well as those who have left us we should be proud of some of the work that people from our community do. In January we will be giving our traditional freedom of the borough awards. This time, in addition we will be awarding the first people's freedom of the borough award to a local resident. This will be awarded to someone who has carried out work for our community. All three people who have been nominated would make worthy winners. If you haven't taken part yet there is still time - click this link to find out more

Elsewhere, things in the borough are changing for the better. At Becontree Heath we are building a new leisure centre with a 25 meter swimming pool. We provide free swimming for all our young people, and we are committed to supporting our local sport clubs where every weekend hundreds of local people give up their time to train our young people.

Other than sport we are committed to supporting activities for the young and old across the borough. Last summer we ran the largest set of organised activities for young people in London. Our Summer Sorted programme kept our young people busy all summer.

Meanwhile at the other end of the age spectrum, the council stepped in to save Pensioners' Clubs when Age Concern threatened to close them. We are now working on a programme of activities to match the one that young people get, designed to keep our pensioners active and fit.

Of course, our pensioners - like the rest of us - won't be able to get out and about without decent transport links. In Barking and Dagenham we are well connected to London and Essex, but all too often the tube network is shut down over the weekends. We have been lobbying the Mayor of London to put a stop to this and for improvements to our bus network. Fortunately, last month the government announced it would be spending £50 million on fixing up rail stations including Barking Station, so we are clearly making some progress.

We have some of the top performing schools in London in Barking and Dagenham. Earlier this year the council got the news that our bid for £270million to improve our local secondary schools has been accepted. This will mean that all our secondary schools will be getting new buildings and IT upgrades. We know we have some of the best teachers; now we will have the best infrastructure to support them.

Last month the council announced that it will be building council homes. They are the first we have built in 25 years. It will allow us to house local families who are living in overcrowded conditions and give local young people their chance to get on their first home.

Our priority this year has been to support people through the recession. We have frozen council tax locally two years running now and we have the lowest council tax in North East London. We have introduced the first 100 of 600 apprenticeships and we are building a £12 million new skills centre all to give our young people a competitive advantage in the job market.

Our local businesses, meanwhile, have been battling and adapting throughout the recession, and we should all do our bit to support them. That is why next week the council is running a Buy Barking and Dagenham week, encouraging every resident and worker here to do more of their shopping here and spend more of their money locally. 

While we fight to get through the recession today we look to what the borough could do tomorrow. We have large pieces of land by the River Thames that need to be used for things that will benefit local people and the local economy. Building a prison there is not the best we can do on the old Ford site and that is why we have been opposing a prison there for the last six months. 

Compare to the rest of London, Barking and Dagenham is a clean place to live, but there is still a lot I want to do. I think the new wheelie bins which we have been rolling out across the borough will help make it cleaner; and the £20million roads and pavements repair programme is already making the whole place look smarter.

However some streets are blighted with front gardens left in a shocking state. There are landlords in this borough who think it is acceptable to turn their gardens into eyesore rubbish dumps. This council, with the support of local residents, has now said that enough is enough. We have made it clear to these irresponsible landlords that if they don't clear their garden of mattresses and sofas and other rubbish, we will and then we will charge them for it.

It has been an interesting six months in the job and I am pleased with some of the things that we have done. I know there is a lot more to do and as always I am interested to know on what you think our council should be doing next.

Yours sincerely

Liam Smith