Last year I took a call from a resident in one of West Kent’s rural parishes. The resident was in despair. The street lamp directly outside her bedroom window had been flickering on and off for three weeks, disturbing her sleep. Her local parish council said that whilst they owned the grass verge, the lamp was not their responsibility. The district council confirmed responsibility for the pavement, but said the lamp belonged to Kent Highways. Kent Highways had a recorded message referring callers to their online reporting page. The only problem being the “online reporting page” required a “street lamp identification number”, which was missing. For three weeks our sleep-deprived resident had been passed around 8 different people at 3 local councils ... none of whom were able to fix her street lamp. Across three tiers of local government, our resident is represented by 11 elected councillors – yet she could not get her problem resolved.
“All I want is the light-bulb replaced”, she said.
I write this article with trepidation as I know the bad-will that is generated whenever local government reorganisation is mentioned. Most councillors tend to agree that the present system doesn’t work, and “something must be done”. Securing consensus for the need to change is relatively simple – agreeing the basis for that change is not.
I fear that the Department of Communities and Local Government, never having recovered from the rows in 1974 and Prescott’s botched reforms 30 years later, have abandoned any top-down reform, and have instead adopted a policy of “let a thousand flowers bloom”. I also know of many district leaders hungry to promote reform, but who are reticent to commit expenditure on detailed planning without knowing if their proposals will gain government approval.
Councillors rightfully take pride in their work, but they should be careful not to confuse this with emotional commitment from residents to the largely man-made boundaries which now define local government. I have no hesitation in telling people that I live in Rochester, and am proud to show visiting friends around our lovely city. However, despite it being an efficient Conservative run council which has continually out performed electoral expectations, I have never said, nor heard anyone say, that they are proud to live in the “Medway Unitary Authority” area.
The relationship between tax-payers and local government has also changed. Last year Bedfordshire’s Police and Crime Commissioner held a referendum to ask residents to approve a Council Tax increase of 48p per week to finance 100 additional police officers. On paper the sum was relatively small and the benefit to the community obvious. Despite this apparent “easy sell”, the proposed increase was defeated by a margin of more than 2:1.
In this climate of “more for less” can local government really continue in its current form?
Does Kent really need 12 district councils, a unitary authority and a County Council to administer its affairs? Are the tax-payers of Kent best served by financing so many council buildings, senior officers, councillors and portfolio holders – all drawing salaries and allowances whilst often duplicating each others’ work? Is scrutiny and accountability best served by having 2 or 3 councillors serving each ward and up to 3 councils representing each community, with each council and councillor blaming the other for service failures? I suspect the lady with the flickering lamp thinks not.
I believe there are two basic levels of service that people want from their local council. The first are the strategic core services: education, social care, highways, refuse disposal, planning, economic regeneration etc. Residents expect these services to be delivered to a high standard at the lowest possible cost. I don’t believe anyone cares about the livery of the bin-wagon providing it collects the rubbish efficiently.
The second level of services people want locally are what I would call the “emotional extras”. They want nice parks and gardens, safe play-areas for their children, well-maintained grass verges, flowers in public spaces, quality bench-seating in places where people gather, a vibrant and accessible community hall – and all those things which build communities and enhance the quality of life. Exactly the things that financially hard-pressed districts have neither the time nor the money to do as well as they once did.
The skills to deliver these services are also very different. Councils which provide strategic services need councillors with business experience, capable of negotiating contracts, managing KPIs, achieving targets and implementing a long-term plan. These are very different, but no more important, than those needed by local community champions who are passionate about their town or village and are determined to make it a pleasant place to live. Putting the right type of councillor in the right council will be key to that council’s success, and that councillor’s sense of fulfilment.
So I believe it is time for radical reform of local government and a managed move to unitary authorities, along with enhanced status for parish (or town) councils. One size seldom fits all, but I think our existing districts should be the building blocks. There may be areas where county-wide unitary councils will work, but generally I suspect they will just be too big and remote, as in my home county of Kent.
In a nutshell, here is my vision
- Re-empowered and re-established parish/town councils – filled with volunteer “local” champions, whose ambition is to deliver outstanding local amenities for their local community. This includes re-establishing town councils in our towns to help restore a sense of civic identity, in areas where ancient town councils were previously subsumed into districts.
- Cost-efficient Unitary authorities, based on amalgamated districts, focussed on core strategic service delivery.
- Redrawn single-member wards, with a reasonable level of remuneration, to attract councillors with the skills and experience needed to promote economic regeneration, attract jobs and businesses and manage large-scale contracts.
One of the failures of the 1972 Act was that too many Conservatives opposed the plans, refused to engage, then insisted on retrospective change which fell short of what was needed. Everyone knows that sooner or later change must come. Rather than repeating the mistakes of the past our local councillors should be leading from the front, and ensuring that the Conservative voice is heard in the debate which will shape the future of local government in England.