Monday, 23 December 2013

Do we really need 714 politicians to run local government in Kent?

One of the disadvantages of having a Group Office is we now have seven of those ghastly municipal charts lining the wall, each showing the photographs of the local ward councillors.  West Kent Towers covers three local authorities entirely (Tonbridge & Malling, Tunbridge Wells and Maidstone) with partial overlapping into four more (Sevenoaks, Swale, Medway and Kent CC).

The fact is we have far too many councils and far too many councillors.

Across Kent we have 630 district/borough councillors and a further 84 County Councillors - making a total of 714 elected representatives. And this doesn't include perhaps a further 1,500 (guesstimate) parish and town councillors who are also part of local governance.

The question we must ask is do we really need more elected politicians to run our local government in Kent than there are Congressmen, Senators, State Governors and Members of the Presidents cabinet elected to run the USA? (605 v 630). OK, I admit the comparison is not like-for-like - but it's a point worth making.

A local party member recently had an issue with the land outside her home. Three different councils were involved (one owned the grass verge, another looked after the pavement and a third was responsible for the lamp post (though not the actual lamp - maintenance of which had been subcontracted to someone else). It took her 12 phone calls, 6 emails and a personal visit to the Parish Clerk to find out who was responsible.  This is not only unacceptable but also a nonsense. You couldn't run a business that way - and if you tried you would soon go bust.

Multi-member wards also need reviewing. In some of our areas there is absolutely no social housing and the lowest levels of depravation in the UK. Councillors in these wards can often go weeks without a call or email seeking assistance. Yet councillors in other wards within the same Borough can receive twenty plus items of casework a week.  Too often I witness councillors playing one off against the other, or in some areas a long serving councillor builds such a strong reputation that 90% of casework lands on his or her desk, whilst ward colleagues cruise along doing the bare minimum. And I know from speaking to colleagues in the opposition parties, this is something which affects them, too.

And then there is the potential for conflict and buck passing (not just between ward colleagues) but from one authority to another. How often have I heard a resident being fobbed-off with "that's a County issue" or "I'm a County Councillor, you need to speak to your district councillor about that". The poor bloody residents doesn't (and shouldn't) need to know this - he/she pays taxes and should be able to report a problem and have a named person allocated to obtain resolution and report back, without being passed from pillar to post in search of someone who will actually take responsibility.

For decades Labour and Conservative governments have fiddled around with local government, to a point where we have so many models it lacks credibility. Ignoring Parishes, we have:

  • Unitary authorities within counties (Medway / Brighton & Hove, Southampton)
  • District or Borough Councils within two-tier counties (Tonbridge & Malling, Shepway and Sevenoaks) each ward electing one, two, three and some cases four councillors)
  • Directly Elected mayors (Bristol, Bedford, Salford, Tower Hamlets)
  • Unitary County-wide councils (Berkshire, Cornwall, Shropshire)
  • Metropolitan Single Tier Councils (Wirral, Birmingham, Dudley)
  • Enlarged Single Tier District Councils (West Cheshire & Chester, East Cheshire)
  • Unitary District Councils (West Berkshire, Windsor)

Not only do we have this ridiculous mish-mash of systems, we also have councils with all-out elections in four year cycles, councils on two year cycles, councils electing in thirds, most using first past the post, Mayoral elections using city-wide lists based on PR with the Mayoral candidate elected using various forms of AV - and this is before we look at the systems used in Scotland and Wales.

I appreciate that areas are different and one size seldom fits all, but surely we can all agree on the basic need for single-tier local government?   I suspect (for good or bad) the days of municipal pride and activism are long gone. Local Government no longer had the power, the money nor the scope for the kind of grand projects that were prevalent in the days of Joseph Chamberlain. If people have geographic pride, it's in their town (Canterbury, Tunbridge Wells, Rochester, Bath).  This will not change, regardless of the name of the council or how the boundaries are drawn. The people of Knutsford in Cheshire still live in (and I hope love living in) Knutsford, as much now that the Boundary Commissioners have placed it in East Cheshire as they did previously.

Residents no longer want or need grand town halls, fleets of liveried dustcarts nor legions of elected representatives with their branded Barchester District Council ties, document wallets, diaries and name badges. People want their bins emptied, their elderly taken care of, their children educated and their streets swept efficiently and cost effectively.

And I suspect they would be quite happy to see the number of elected councillors cut by at least 50%, perhaps single member wards, with their local representative paid a reasonable sum of money to do a good job and be accountable to the electorate for their success and failure. No more book passing from one member to another, or from one council to another. Clean, efficient, accountable and fair.

I hope a future Conservative government will have the courage to truly reform local government, ensuring we are all represented fairly and equally and those responsible for good local governance (whether they are elected councillors or officers) are transparent and accountable to the taxpayers and voters alike.

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