THE public will decide on fluoride.
That is among the pledges of the new man at the helm of Southampton City Council.
Personally, Cllr Simon Letts is in favour of adding the chemical to the tap water of 200,000 people in the city and surrounding areas in a bid to improve the health of children’s teeth.
However he says that if and when the controversial decision becomes the council’s responsibility, he will hold a referendum.
He told the Daily Echo: “My personal view is clear, I am personally persuaded by the health arguments for fluoridation.
“But I am certainly in favour of the public having the chance to choose and should the decision be the council’s, then we would hold a public referendum.”
After being formally sworn in as the third city council leader within a month yesterday, Cllr Letts is readying himself for the challenge ahead.
Only three weeks ago the 49- year-old was in charge of the city’s finances, but the shock resignation of former chief Richard Williams on April 25 and interim leader Jacqui Rayment stepping aside last week brought about his swift rise to the top job.
With £20m of cuts predicted for each of the next two financial years, he will not be able to ease into the job.
But, he says, the task is not as daunting as it was 12 months ago.
He said: “The situation is better than it was last year in the sense that at least we know the extent of the cuts we have to make.
“We have a good idea of the finances we have and that makes it daunting, but at least we know what we are facing.”
The size of the job ahead of Cllr Letts is demonstrated by the fact that he will be standing down as a science teacher at Hamble Community Sports College, a job he has held since 1996, to devote his time fully to his new role.
He said: “I can’t do both jobs at the same time.
“I will be taking a cut in my income by doing that, but I think that it’s only fair that I take this job on full-time.
“I couldn’t be called the leader of the city council if I was also doing something else, it’s not fair on the people who elected us.”
He hopes to save millions of pounds by renegotiating the council’s current contract with partner Capita, which provides much of the council’s back-office functions.
Among his other aims for the next 12 months are delivering the City Deal, along with Portsmouth City Council, which would provide a £1.5bn boost to the region’s economy.
Cllr Letts also hopes to provide a timely boost for young people in the city by providing apprenticeships and paid internships both at the council and its partners, including Capita, while he will put the £500,000 put aside by previous leader Mr Williams to “getting our economy moving”, back into the council’s reserves.
The new leader also hopes significant long-term changes can be made by overhauling the council’s “antiquated” IT systems, and reducing the number of agency workers.
The Bitterne councillor, who has lived in the city since 1981, says he hopes he will be able to put across his own political views as leader.
He continued: “I’m a firm believer that we are greater together than the sum of our parts.
“The co-operative spirit runs quite deep in my politics.
“Working together as a community means we can do positive things as opposed to just opposing things we don’t want to happen.
“We really need to re-engage with the public, there is a lot of distrust in politicians and the thought that we are all in it for ourselves needs to be changed.
“Most of the city councillors, of all political parties, are interested in doing their job for the best of the city.”
His predecessor, Mr Williams, resigned after an investigation into his conduct found he had misled the public, but Cllr Letts does not believe that has stained the reputation of the Labour hierarchy.
He said: “I have always believed that honesty is the best policy and that I have always demonstrated that.
“But I think that as important as it is for us in the council chamber, I suspect most people are more concerned about where their wages come from or whether they can pay their bills.
“I have lived in the city for a long time and I am committed to its success, and I believe we can deliver some success.”
The size of the task ahead means that Cllr Letts scrapped previous plans to reduce the number of cabinet members from eight to six.
His new team have been picked on the basis of their experience and expertise.
New deputy leader and his successor in the resources brief, Stephen Barnes- Andrews, has management and financial experience from the private sector.
Cllr Letts says Cllr Rayment, who was interim leader for three weeks, has an important job in working out where various council departments overlap, and where money can be saved by streamlining those services.
Some areas in adult social care, such as occupational therapy, are currently catered for by three separate council and NHS teams and significant savings can be made by making those areas the responsibility of just one team.
Dave Shields, the new member for health and adult social care, is a former public health officer and will have responsibility for overseeing the council’s new public health responsibilities, including fluoride.
New economic development and leisure boss Matt Tucker has experience in working on large projects such as Watermark WestQuay and the new arts complex.