Friday, 13 July 2018

Reorganising councils? It’s your voice that really matters - my Coalville Times column

Over the past couple of weeks political figures from across Leicestershire have been arguing with each other about what is essentially a process story. They have been talking about local government reorganisation, to you and me the possibility of getting rid of a tier of local councils right here in Leicestershire.

You might have seen the story on the front page of last week’s Coalville Times. I’m sure that there’s a better than fair chance that you passed it over fairly quickly. If you did then let me have a second try at explaining to you why it is, in fact, a very important story and one that could potentially improve or worsen (depending on how you look at it) the council services which you, I and every other resident of Leicestershire rely upon.

A few years ago now, at the time that I was a councillor, Leicestershire County Council commissioned an independent report to look at how much money could be saved if local government in Leicestershire was moved to a two tier model rather than the three different levels of council that we currently have.

By merging our shire districts and county council, our parishes would remain largely untouched or even may take on more responsibilities, it was estimated that around thirty million pounds could be saved every year. Thirty million earned by Leicestershire residents and thirty million which could, in theory at least, be used on important front-line services or indeed be kept in the pockets of those who had grafted for it in the first place.

As you might imagine amongst councillors at risk of not just losing their seat but losing their entire council the plan went down like a lead balloon.

The cynical might say ‘of course it did, turkeys don’t vote for Christmas, do they?’; others might comment that it was simply elected members wanting to hold on to their allowances. Not for one second would I be so uncharitable.

The truth is that the councillors who were so against the idea of a unitary council took that position, largely, not because they were genuinely thinking about their own pocket but the concept of democracy. The premise that local decisions should be taken by local people and that district and borough councils, on the whole, deliver better than bureaucrats far away at County Hall.

Given the picture of funding for local government four years after the independent report was kicked into the long grass it was inevitable that it would eventually return, the potential savings were too great for it not to have done, and in these hot days of a long summer the subject is back and causing argument once again.

The Cabinet of Leicestershire County Council have agreed to undertake a public consultation on whether a unitary council should go ahead and it is vital that the ordinary people of Leicestershire should give voice to their opinion for it is us, all of us, who can offer the most objective viewpoint.

I think that it is fair to say that on the whole councillors at County Hall think it better to have a single Leicestershire wide unitary authority. It won’t come as a surprise that district councillors think their style of local government is best.

In the past I have had a foot in both camps and personally favour a reduction in the number of councils, but once again I am probably too close to the arguments to be fully objective. The best arbiters of this decision are you; which is why I would urge you, strongly, to let your views be known.

Before I leave this week I want you to think over a few questions about this story to perhaps help you consider whether we should stick with the status quo, or welcome change. They are questions you might not have thought about before but may help to inform you a little when you are asked for your views. So here goes:

1. An easy one to start with, do you know the name of the councils that look after your part of the world? Do you have a parish or town council, or are the things a parish would normally do done on their behalf by someone else?

2. Do you know the name of your councillors at each level of local government? I bet fewer than one in a hundred do.

3. Do you know what each council is responsible for and how they make their decisions? Unless you actually work at the council, are a councillor or involved in politics then you won’t know the answer to this question; know one ever does.

4. Does it infuriate you on the few occasions that you contact the council to be told that the issue you’re phoning about is someone else’s responsibility?

5. Do you feel out of touch from the different levels of council the help to provide services to us?

6. And finally, if you believe in keeping the status quo what services do you think should be cut to realise the £30 million that could be achieved by getting rid of back office duplication?

Local government reorganisation isn’t a party political issue, there are strong views for and against in every political party, it’s actually much more fundamental than that.

Do you value decisions being made in your village hall, at Whitwick Road and Glenfield for the sake of local democracy or could that be simplified? Is a unitary council about removing silos or a power grab? Is it about removing red tape and protecting the services we rely upon or taking decisions out of your hands?

The truth is that local residents can answer those questions more objectively than any local councillor or MP. You don’t have the same dogs in the fight that they do.

The government have said there won’t be change unless there is a clear majority in favour of it. To me the clearest voices have to be those of local people. You need to offer your opinions and the powers should be should listen.

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