Monday, 2 July 2018

Is it time for a unitary Leicestershire council - my Catholic Universe column from March 2015

As political types in and around Leicestershire mull over the possibilities of ditching borough and district councils I was reminded of this piece I wrote in March 2015 for the Catholic Universe newspaper.

The issues in it, I think, still hold up...

There is no doubt that with the dissolution of parliament just days away that the general election campaign is now fully underway in earnest.

I would suggest however that, unless you are a political anorak like me, it will have not crossed your mind that there will be many other elections happening on May 7th.

In great swathes of most, but not all, of the country voters will also be deciding on who runs their councils for the next four years.

Although they are the most local level of democracy councils are alien to many people whilst the services they provide are often essential to our daily lives, services such as care for older people, refuse collection, social housing or maintenance of our roads.

To too many residents, sadly often the ones who choose not to vote, local authorities are figures of blame. I have lost count of the number of times I have heard councils being accused of delivering failing services, or worse still of corruption, even when services under discussion are not even provided by them. Yet I can fully understand the complaints.

As a councillor who represents my community at three levels; county, district and parish and as one who regularly appears in the local press, on radio and occasionally on television I would venture to suggest that I have a profile higher than most locally elected representatives.

I don’t mention this to seek plaudits but rather to highlight a point. I can assure you that whilst many might know the name of their MP the vast majority of residents in my community would not have any idea who their councillor is if they were asked.

In many ways the more local democracy gets the more anonymous it becomes.

The truth is of course I don’t blame local residents whatsoever for their detachment from local government, local government doesn’t make it at all easy for people to access its services.

Whilst in major cities local services are usually provided by a single local government behemoth if you happen to live in a rural county the chances are that three separate bodies will all be providing services to you.

So I must ask is it reasonable that a resident should be expected to know which of those three bodies provides which service to them?

I shall give an example. I am regularly contacted by local residents about inconsiderate parking on grass verges which often causes damage to public open spaces. It’s a perfectly reasonable request and as a ‘triple hatted’ councillor one that I can attempt to resolve, yet even to me the complexity of which council is responsible for taking which action is mind boggling.

I am told that parking enforcement is a county council responsibility but doing the job is often outsourced to district councils, however should a district council receive a request for action to be taken they cannot simply send out an enforcement officer. Request for officers to be sent out must come from, you’ve guessed it, the county council.

Things get yet more complicated. The grass verge parking may or may not be classed as being on the highway. If it is then it is a county council responsibility but if it crosses as far as being on other public open space then it could well be the role of the district, or even parish council.

I am sure there are good reasons for the rules I have outlined, but to me at least there seems to be artificial boundaries which cause needless difficulties in solving what should be a simple problem.

The point is however that if I, a councillor who can tap in to each of those three separate bodies, finds it complex then how can we reasonably expect someone who doesn’t have a background in local government to readily tackle the issue? At the end of the day all that the community want is for action to be taken to stop motorists parking illegally and causing an unsightly mess.

Of course local people will become detached from a concept that is too bureaucratic for them to effectively engage with.

Local government has been at the centre of coalition government cuts. What many readers may not be aware is that historically levying council tax has accounted for less than half of the total money spent by councils with the vast majority of the remainder coming from central government grants.

In the past five years those grants have been cut dramatically, what is more irrespective of who takes power from May 7th it is projected that central government funding will continue to be squeezed significantly in the coming years.

This column has commented before on the impact of reductions to frontline services. Many recipients of those essential services are now very much feeling the impact of cuts.

So with this in mind my question must be ‘do we actually need three tiers of local government?’

As someone who sits on three different councils I can honestly say that this is a question where one has to walk on eggshells.

Invariably councillors will put up a robust argument that their authority is the most ‘in touch’ tier of local government and that whilst reorganisation may be worth thinking about it makes good sense that county / district / parish* (delete where applicable) should be the anchor for how councils interact with residents.

Sadly the reorganisation question is not one which non-political, for want of a better word, ordinary people often ask, yet it is one where savings could be immense.

Last year my county council commissioned accountants Ernst & Young to undertake a report querying the financial viability of establishing a unitary authority, that is one in which parish councils would be retained but councils at the district tier could potentially be removed. It was projected that in such a reorganisation taxpayers in the county could save over £30 million a year.

The paper was met by outright hostility by the vulnerable district councils and a degree of apathy by local residents. Quietly the report was put on the backburner.

It is interesting to note that county councils up and down the country have produced similar business cases. Nearly all of them have gone into the dustbin of history.

Of course there is a strong argument that it is important to retain decision making at the most local level possible, the catholic principle of subsidiarity would clearly support that. Yet in these financially difficult times when the possibility of economies of scale may be great the most appropriate level of local decision making may well be based on a wider geographic basis than we currently use. The potential to protect valuable front line services may be too great to dismiss.

A rationalisation of local government isn’t particularly a party political issue, there are supporters and detractors on all sides of the left right spectrum.

Not for one second am I suggesting that reorganisation should be forced on any area that does not want it but, to me at least, it seems a public debate needs to be had. What councils should be about is providing first rate services to local people. Do we really need artificial separation between service providers?

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