Could a town council be fit for purpose AND affordable?

Some very pertinent comments and observations on the subject of a town council for Spalding, but there is a need to always keep in mind the cost of this. Are the people of Spalding prepared to see the charge of £23, currently identified as the Spalding Special Expenses, double, just for the pleasure of saying, ‘we have a town council’?

I say double, because even though the SSE stands at £209,000 and doubling it would take it to £418,000, which seems excessive, one has to use a worse case scenario, in order not to get a very nasty shock once any town council is established. I would anticipate the need to employ at least three full time staff for a town the size of Spalding. Given that one of our towns has just employed a new parish clerk at a cost of some £27k, to which they will need to add 20% at least, to cover employment costs, it doesn’t take much to see that the numbers roll up very quickly.

I also have a suspicion that, once any town council was in place, SHDC non-Spalding members would soon start to identified items of Spalding based expenditure, that they felt should be on the town council’s books and not on South Holland District Council’s.

Don’t get me wrong, when I first joined the district council, I was amazed to find that Spalding was unparished and that the district council controlled everything via the SSE. As I was in the privileged position of being the chairman of the newly resurrected STF, I did ask for the possibility of a town council to be explored. Even back then, a figure of £40k had been spoken of previously. This on a SSE, at the time, of approximately £85k. This figure was however questioned by some members, who believed that SHDC had manufactured that number as a scare tactic, in order to kill off the process. This at a time when the council was controlled by independents – I’ll leave it at that.

Recently, I did look at this issue again and even wrote to several town councils in the area, asking if they could give me some idea of their running costs. Unsurprisingly, none of them wrote back – parish and town councils have a reputation for being less than transparent in such matters. One council I did look at more closely, in order to draw some parallels, was Sleaford. According to their master plan, Sleaford has a population of around 17000, approximately half that of Spalding – Sleaford Town Council has a staff of SIX and 17 elected members. I don’t know how much SHDC would wish to charge a town council for office space, but I do know that it would not be free.

Wimbledon is showing on the TV as I type this, so I could be tempted to claim game, set and match on this question, simply based on affordability. However, things are never that simple. One has to accept that the will of the people could well outweigh purely financial considerations, especially if the right question is asked of them.

Instead of looking for conventional solutions to this perceived democratic deficit and given the financial depression most taxpayers find themselves faced with, is there another way to achieve the desired outcome? The Localism Bill introduced a right to challenge, perhaps a group of local people should start looking at ways of using this as a cost effective way of addressing this issue, in part at least.

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2 thoughts on “Could a town council be fit for purpose AND affordable?

  1. I really can’t see that funding a Spalding Town Council would be the real issue. What extra costs would be involved over those that SHDC ‘special expenses’ already allows for Spalding? You suggest that administrative staffing and rental costs would be incurred. This is perhaps true but these costs would be partly or wholly offset by reduced admin expenses at SHDC, which they are very keen to do right now and are already discussing outsourcing such responsibilities as, for example, the production and management of Spalding Christmas decorations with non-profit town groups.

    And, I’m assuming that you’re suggesting that a Spalding Town Council would be lumbered with ALL the Spalding management/maintenance costs currently partly shared with ALL South Holland taxpayers. Surely, this is not necessarily the case: many facilities in Spalding are used by ALL district residents (it’s the standard ‘who should pay for the new Leisure Centre’ argument – Spalding or district residents – all, of whom, use the Spalding based facilities).

    That said, I agree, there will be a cost to introduce a Spalding Town Council but the cost of NOT providing an accountable, elected body to oversee and manage the affairs and the development of Spalding, while not easily quantifiable, are potentially a lot higher; particularly, as I have argued in earlier comments, with the current economic which is creating ‘nobody at the wheel’ conditions. I repeat, SHDC are no longer able or prepared to provide any more than the basic statutory resources directed towards the management of Spalding. And, there is no longer anyone there prepared to ‘care’. This leaves individual ward Councillors and the Spalding Town Forum to ‘step up to the plate’ and ‘take ownership’ of the towns welfare.

    So, let’s look at possibilities: what CAN be be done. How can a Spalding Town Council be created and paid for?

    The proposed Holland Market Development is a major scheme that alone should be causing some serious discomfort at the Spalding Town Forum (have they not learnt from the Red Lion Quarter development fiasco?). Who is looking out for the interests of the town and its residents? We’ve got a PR driven, quasi ‘pre-consultation’ going on between the developer and a couple town special interest groups. SHDC has it’s Planning and Economic Development involved; but they have to be pretty much unbiased. The Conservative group appears to have made up its’ mind already as their leader is already suggesting alternatives to replace the proposed loss of the Halley Stewart, town centre green space. I just don’t get the impression that anyone is taking the proposal, in terms of how it will affect Spalding and its’ residents, that seriously.

    But, there’s an opportunity here… The developer has already publicly mumbled about offering to pay for a ‘Spalding Town Centre management’ group as part of any S.106 development offset compensation. Well, how about incorporating that concept in to funding the creation of a Spalding Town Council? What’s the difference? Perhaps an idea worth discussing, anyway.

    And, let’s not dismiss SHDC itself subsidising the fledgling Town Council – after the numbers are crunched, it may be in their best economic interests to do just that.

    Ways forward have to be found.

    The point being, that economics dictate and central government is insisting that local authorities find ‘different (and more efficient) ways of working’ which produce more and cost less. Spalding cannot just sit back and expect an under resourced and indifferent district council (SHDC) and a part-time, quasi town council (the Spalding Town Forum) meeting every three months to do the job.

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    • I’m surprised. Given your inside knowledge, I’m sure you are well aware of what a tangled web local government finance is. Transferring some of a service’s function to another party, almost never see the full cost to the new party achieved – it’s just not possible. Using Sleaford as the example, the cost of 6 staff, would be close to if not in excess of, the total SSE of £209,000 – plenty of staff, but no service delivery!

      It is not SHDC that sort to ‘outsource’ the Christmas lights. This suggestion came from the STF, given that the SSE now picks up the whole cost of maintenance and erection. The idea proposed, based on the Chamber becoming far more active recently, was to invite the town centre businesses to manage the lights – not take absolute responsibility, not really the same as outsourcing and not design to cut costs. This was based on the premise that the town centre businesses have a better understanding of where the lights would be most effective. The SSE would continue to pick up all the bills. If the chamber is looking in to how the job might become an outsourced activity, then that is a different thing.

      I’m not suggest that any lumbering would take place. However, non-Spalding members would justifiably be scrutinising even more closely, those Spalding based activities currently paid for by the whole district. Only this week, a non-Spalding member questioned why SHDC paid for the maintenance of the rive banks in Spalding and not the SSE? There are some anomalies regarding the SSE and what it pays for, but these relate mainly to public open space areas. I did suggest that the member was being far too simplistic and parochial and that Spalding may enjoy some benefits, it also suffered a number of dis-benefits from being the service hub for the district.

      I’m afraid I do not agree with your suggestion that a town council would fill the alleged void left by the SHDC management cull. A Spalding Town Council would not be a mini-version of SHDC. Unless there is power and control, combined with the passion, that’s all it is – passion. If people are unhappy with the quality of the care delivered in a particular service area, they can complain to their district councillor, they can complain directly to the district council. If Spalding had a town council, they would be able to complain to them, who would do no more than complain to all of the above! Only if the town council was picking up the bill, whilst the target of the complaint might change, it’s not certain that the outcome would.

      Again, a Spalding Town Council would not be a mini-district council and would not have the resources or the expertise to effectively challenge in the way you suggest. What exactly are the ‘interests’ of Spalding that a town council would be safeguarding, that cannot be similarly protected by the active involvement of district councillors through the planning process, or by groups such as the Civic Society? What would a town council of 15-20 members and a couple of professional officers be doing so differently? What RLQ fiasco? Is the building an eyesore, is it in the wrong place, is it falling down? One part of it has failed to live up to expectations, but the post-6th form education facility seems to be doing what it set out to do. What harm has come to Spalding and what harm would of been prevented by a town council?

      I also think you dismiss the planning process too easily. it certainly is not the puppet of the politicians and will use the policies of The Council, as detailed in the Local Plan, not those of the politicians, when determining any planning application(s).

      What is unfortunate, is that the developer seems to be allowing himself to see discussions with one of the landowners – SHDC, as the equivalent of consultation with the community. Spalding Town Forum does have the option of inviting the developer to come and talk to them, in the same way any parish or town council would. Such a request would normally be triggered by public concern and translated into a discussion at a meeting. I can only assume that either, the STF are not that worried at this time, the public are not too worried, the STF are not listening to the worries. If I asked George Aley as chairman of the STF, if the public had been voicing any concerns, what would he say?

      Likewise, what role would a town council be playing in the proposed redevelopment of Holland Market, other than that demonstrated by any parish council when considering any planning application? Yes, they could be pressing for a meeting with the developer to look at his plans – but then what? Find their own £50+K to appoint their own planning consultant? Would that be something Spalding people would be happy to see? With all due respect to the leader, he is doing no more than any politician would do when dealing with such matters – floating ideas. Just because he is saying something, it should not be assumed that he speaks for every member of the group, let alone as a policy of the council. How would a town council challenge effectively, his proposal to do away with Halley Stewart?

      Capital expenditure, versus long term revenue stream. It’s all very well using s106 monies to establish something, be it a water taxi, a community centre, or even part of something called the RLQ. However, when that s106 has run out, how do you continue to pay the bills. Is it really realistic to think that this developer is going to pay for a town centre manager for evermore?

      I would not hold out any hope of SHDC finding money to help a Spalding Town Council come into being, beyond that required by legislation (if there is any).

      I think the accusation of indifference is unfair. SHDC does as much as it can with what it has. Indeed, your claim would be vigorously disputed by most non-Spalding councillors and people, who claim that Spalding gets everything and they get nothing. Most parish and many town councils meet no more that quarterly and all are part timers. Even their parish clerks are part time, with many serving 2 or even 3 parish councils.

      Frustratingly, for me, as I am still a supporter of the principle, I remain unconvinced that it would be possible to create an affordable council for Spalding, that the people of Spalding would gain anything of substance from, other than an increase in their council tax.

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