Last week we received a call at West Kent HQ. The lady at the end of the phone was in despair. The streetlamp directly outside her bedroom window had been flickering for three weeks and disturbing her sleep. The local parish council said that whilst they owned the grass verge, the pavement was the responsibility of the district council. The district council confirmed responsibility for the pavement, but the lamp came under Kent Highways. Over the following two weeks the lady haS been passed around eight different people at three different councils, none of whom were able assist her or accept responsibility for the lamp. Across these three tiers of local bureaucracy our sleep-deprived resident is represented by eleven elected councillors (seven parish, three district and one county) yet she cannot get her problem sorted. "All I want is the light bulb replaced..."
I write this blog with trepidation as I know the bad will that is generated whenever local government re-organisation is mentioned, even though most local councillors tend to agree that the present system doesn't work and "something must be done". Securing consensus on the need for change is relatively simple - agreeing the basis for that change is not. Fear of reform, suspicion about the motives, pride in their council's history and achievements and a degree of self preservation all play their part.
There was a time when local councils reflected their communities, both in name and style. Municipal giants such as Joseph Chamberlain and Robert Barclay made their names as great reformers in their respective cities. Borough, urban and rural district councils reflected their local communities. Residents and politicians understandably felt a degree of "municipal pride".
For right or wrong, much of that changed following the Redcliffe-Maud proposals and their botched implementation in the 1972 Act. However well intentioned, the creation of the 'metropolitan counties" breaking historical county allegiances and forcing together such unlikely bedfellows as Wirral and Knowsley, or Solihull and Walsall, was sadly destined to fail, regardless of the wider economic and regeneration benefits. I suspect these changes did much to poison the well and the consequences are still shaping peoples' fears today.
Past failures however must not be used as an excuse to avoid modern need. Councillors rightfully take pride in their work but they should not confuse this with emotional commitment from residents in the largely man made boundaries which now define local government. Although I have only lived here three years I am quite proud to live in Rochester and enjoy showing its historical sites to visiting friends, but whilst I am grateful to live under an efficient Conservative council I have no emotional connection with 'the Medway Unitary Authority'.
In this post austerity settlement money remains tight and taxpayers increasingly demand more for less. On 7 May Bedfordshire's Police and Crime Commissioner asked residents in a referendum to agree a Council Tax increase of 46 pence per week to provide 100 additional police officers. On paper the sum (a quarter of the price of a Sunday newspaper) was not large and the benefits to a community which rank police cuts and fear of crime highly should have been easy to sell. The proposed increase however was defeated by a margin of more than two to one.
In this environment and with changed expectations of residents and taxpayers, local government needs to carefully consider if it can continue to justify its existence in its current form. Does Kent really need 12 district councils, one unitary authority and the County Council (with almost 700 elected councillors) to administer its affairs? Are the taxpayers of Kent best served by so many council buildings, Chief Executives, senior officers councillors, portfolio holders and council leaders all drawing salaries whilst duplicating each others work? Is scrutiny and democratic accountability best served by having two or three councillors representing each ward and three councils representing each community, with each councillor and council blaming the other for non delivery.
In my view there are two levels of service people want from their council. The first are the core services - education, social care, highways, refuse disposal etc. Residents want these services delivered to a high quality at the lowest possible cost. I don't believe anyone cares about the livery of the bin wagon provided it collects the rubbish when it needs to be collected and does so efficiently.
The second level of services people want from their council are the "emotional" extras. They want nice parks and gardens, safe play areas for their children, well maintained grass verges and nicely planted roundabouts, hanging baskets in public spaces, quality bench seating in places where people walk or gather, a vibrant and accessible village hall or community centre and all those things which build communities and enhance the quality of life. Exactly the things which financially hard pressed councils have neither the money nor time to do as well as they once did.
So I believe it's time for reform of local government and a managed move to unitary authorities. One size seldom fits all, but I think our existing districts/boroughs should be the building blocks. There may be areas where county-wide unitary councils will work, but generally I suspect they will be just too large and remote. When dealing with local government and taxation I am often reminded of the importance of 'community and shared interest'. Paying taxes which often benefit others is somewhat akin to entertaining the more 'remote' members of ones family on high days and holy days; you open your home and share your goodwill, but you do so because you have a sense of responsibility and belonging - you certainly wouldn't open your home and expose your family to other peoples relations. And so it is with re-distributive taxation. Wealthier neighbourhoods accept the need to pay more than their fair share if they know the surplus is benefiting those in need in their own town, village or community. Redistributive taxation which benefits "others" leads to ill feeling and protest; the last thing we need is to create 500 municipal European Unions built on resentment and mistrust.
So in a nutshell, here is my vision
- Re-empowered parish and town councils filled with volunteer 'local champions' whose ambition is to deliver outstanding local amenities for their local community.
- New councils for our historic towns where currently there are none (such as Tunbridge Wells, Tonbridge, Rochester and Chatham) re-empowering communities whose local governance has been previously subsumed.
- Reinvigorated and cost efficient unitary authorities based on amalgamated districts, focused on core statutory service delivery.
- Re-drawn single member wards and properly remunerated councillors attracting councillors with the skills and experience to promote economic regeneration, attract jobs and businesses and manage large scale projects and contracts.