Labour has a double whammy in store for local government

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It seems that Labour is willing to throw local government in to further turmoil, should it regain power at the next general election. The Electoral Society has published a document written by a Labour lobby group, promoting proportional representation voting as the way to re-energise democracy in this country.

Labour is also revisiting the issue of two tier local government, something that will effect shire areas such as Lincolnshire. This would probably a good thing from the council taxpayers’ perspective, as it would remove some of the confusion and frustration they experience when dealing with two tier local government. However, it’s by no means clear that this is intended to make democracy more accessible and straightforward for the taxpayer, as opposed to just making it easier for Labour to gain power outside of their current urban strongholds.

Reading the document, it would appear that Labour are concerned about running out of the foot soldiers they need to get re-elected. As many of these foot soldiers come from those standing in local elections, the Party appears to have a cunning plan to create more Labour councillors (foot soldiers) across the country.

This sudden enthusiasm for PR could of course be intended as a sop to the Liberal Democrats, just in case Labour needs to go into coalition with them, to freeze out the Conservatives in 2015, if plan A, an outright majority, doesn’t come to pass.

Perhaps the Labour Party really does believe PR is the way forward and are seeking to collude with the LibDems to foist it on to the British public via the back door, or rather from the bottom up. Using local government as a guinea pig, they will impose it on to councils, already buckling under the weight of doing more than their bit to help reduce Labour’s deficit legacy. Looked at cynically, one could suggest that the extremely low turn out in local elections, makes councils an easy target for this experiment and that any outcry from existing councillors will gain little, if any, support from an apathetic public.

There are many reasons why we should be extremely wary of PR at the local government level. There are a plenty of examples of councils that are in a form of leadership limbo, due to being in no overall control, because no single group has the majority. Even when there is what might be called a controlling group there are examples of councils being controlled by single issue groups, rather then one with any particular political allegiance. Boston Borough Council had something called the Boston Bypass Party until 2011. In both cases, this effectively leaves a council with no political direction, or leadership and being run by its officers.

I would also suggest that PR will inevitably lead to the introduction of professional councillors. The PR system means that a councillor representing a particular minor group, gets allotted a seat in a division well away from where they are actually living. As such, they are likely to need a far greater level of administrative support and spend a much greater amount of time and effort dealing with issues. They will also claim a much higher level of expenses and ultimately, find themselves needing to become a ‘full time’ councillor.

The prospect is, that should Labour gain power, either totally, or in a coalition, all councils will become single tier across England. Additionally, in many areas the council will be in the political control of what is politely called, rainbow alliances, but could soon be more accurately be described as, ‘a herd of cats’.

http://m.youtube.com/watch?autoplay=1&v=Pk7yqlTMvp8

The Labour Party position on unitaries

A senior shadow minister has hinted that Labour would revive unitary local government reorganisation.

Shadow chief secretary to the Treasury Chris Leslie said in a speech to the Social Market Foundation thinktank that the government should work with councils that were already promoting unitary schemes, such as Leicestershire and Warwickshire.

“The previous Labour government helped local government to make efficiency savings. So we gave local authorities powers to merge and change their boundaries and in 2009 a series of local authority reorganisations brought together district and county councils and created new unitary bodies,” he said.

“Other changes in Devon, Exeter and Norfolk were in the pipeline but this government stopped those in their tracks and are continuing to resist local authorities’ proposals to unitaries.”

The earlier generation of county unitaries had delivered savings per head through efficiencies of £46 per person a year in Cornwall, £52 in Central Bedfordshire, £66 in Shropshire and £91 in Northumberland, Mr Leslie (pictured) said.

He said: “The government and Whitehall should be doing more to empower councils, that see from the bottom up the benefits of collaboration and are actively debating whether to come together. This should also include small district councils that are facing the greatest financial pressures of all.”

Mr Leslie, who was a junior local government minister under Labour and ran the New Local Government Network thinktank before he returned to Parliament in 2010, said he and shadow communities and local government secretary Hilary Benn would “continue to explore the full range of options to support councils as they share services, pool budgets, and choose to collaborate and integrate further”.

Local government minister Brandon Lewis contrasted Mr Leslie’s speech with reported remarks in which Labour policy co-ordinator Jon Cruddas appeared to rule out reorganisation.

He said: “The Labour Party are in disarray on unitary local government restructuring, ruling it out one week and calling for it the next.

“By contrast, the coalition government is very clear that restructuring would be expensive, divisive and time-consuming, diverting time from improving frontline services and locally-led co-ordination.

“Labour is motivated by partisan politics, doing what they think is best for Labour self-interest rather than what’s best for the country.”

Mr Leslie also said that English local government was “enduring eye-watering reductions in revenue support grant which are threatening basic activities in social services, housing, environmental services, libraries and local voluntary bodies”.

Labour’s Local Government Innovation Taskforce would examine how to orientate services “around users rather than necessarily sticking with the old – and expensive – bureaucratic way of working”, he said.

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DCLG showing just how petty and obsessive Pickles is

Copied from Local Government Chronicle online
DCLG accused of ‘silliness’ over combined authority names
21 February, 2014 | By Kaye Wiggins

Councils forming combined authorities have accused the Department for Communities & Local Government of “silliness” and “kindergarten games” after being told they cannot use the word “region” in their names.

At least three of the four areas setting up the new authorities are embroiled in a row with the department, which has suggested changing their formal names before they are established on 1 April.

Roger Stone (Lab), leader of Rotherham MBC, said councils in the Sheffield city region had been asked to rename themselves as the Sheffield, Rotherham, Barnsley and Doncaster combined authority.

“I think it’s because Eric Pickles doesn’t like the word region, because it sounds too European,” he said.

“We’re insisting it be called the Sheffield city region because that’s what we all agreed on from the start of negotiations. And the DCLG’s alternative name would leave out North East Derbyshire, Chesterfield, Bolsover and Bassetlaw, which are all part of the combined authority.

“At the moment it’s like a tennis ball going back and forth. We’re insisting on the city region but DCLG wants it changed. It’s childish. It’s kindergarten games.”

Graham Burgess, chief executive of Wirral MBC, said the Liverpool city region was in a similar situation. DCLG officials have suggested a name change to the Halton, Knowsley, Liverpool, St Helens, Sefton and Wirral combined authority (HKLSSWCA).

“All six areas agreed on the name Liverpool City Region, but DCLG has refused to let us use the word region,” he said.

“So much for localism.”

Paul Watson (Lab), leader of Sunderland City Council, said he had been told DCLG officials wanted to prevent his area from using the name North East combined authority.

“They want to call it the Northumberland, Durham and Tyne and Wear combined authority which is a bit of a mouthful,” he said.

“It’s just silliness. I just want us to be left to get along with actually doing the work rather than having to spend time thinking about acronyms.”

A DCLG spokesman said: “A number of responses to the consultation requested a change of name, which is why we changed the legal name. If the new combined authority wants to use something snappier as shorthand, that’s a matter for them.”

READERS’ COMMENTS (1)

Roger | 24-Feb-2014 9:48 am
‘Silliness’, I think they are being far too polite when describing yet another stupid and petty diktat from Pickles and his minions.
Unsuitable or offensive?

Only complaining via the letters page, achieves very little

Its always a bit disappointing when the first time you find out that somebody has got a problem, is when it appears in the letters page of the local newspaper.  It’s doubly disappointing when the person making the complaint is known to you, because you have had dealings with them in the past and have actually been successful in resolving an issue for them.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not seeking to be the best thing since sliced bread – never really understood what that means – and be the go to guy for everything and everyone, but I’m just a bit nonplussed as they say, that this gentleman didn’t at least given me a heads up on the issue, at the same time as writing to the newspaper.  All that said, I have actually been looking into the issue of drivers allegedly ignoring the pedestrian crossing on Wygate Park, over the last couple of months, following a comment made to me by a resident sometime ago.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThe comment was along the same lines as the letter in the press and although I have not witnessed any occurrences myself, it reminded me of my own concerns about this crossing.  Until the recent conversation, I thought it was just me and that I was somehow becoming less aware of such things and therefore needed to be on my guard when driving.  This is often a criticism of drivers of a certain age, so I had to consider it as a possible reason for my concerns, regarding this pedestrian crossing.  However, having heard these concerns from somebody of lesser years, I thought I’d do some further research.

For sometime now, I felt the crossing was somehow less obvious as you approach it in the car, than similar crossing in other locations – but only during the hours of daylight.  At night the opposite is true and I would defy anybody other than a blind person, somebody sleep driving, or somebody completely off their head on drink or drugs, not to see this crossing clearly.  Not only is it floodlit, it also has illuminated black and white posts, that work brilliantly in combo with the flashing yellow beacons that top them.

Unfortunately, during the hours of daylight, the beacons seem barely adequate and along with other surrounding issues, I wonder if this might be the cause of the alleged pedestrian near misses?  Does the background of nearby trees and branches make the beacons less visible than normal?  Is it the light units on top that leads a driver to see these as street lights, rather than the crossing illumination and warning beacons they actually are?  Could it the fact that the crossing actually sits on one of the traffic calming platforms, making the viewing angle from a driver’s perspective, shallower and the black and white crossing less obvious?

I’ve been in touch with the county highways department, asking all of these questions and they are of the opinion that there’s no problem with either the crossing, or its visibility.  As always, they are forced to look at getting the biggest bang for their ever decreasing buck, so they use the accident and incident figures for a given location, as a way of determining its priority.  In the case of this crossing, nobody has been run over yet and, thankfully, nobody has been killed, so it doesn’t even figure on the highways dept’s radar, when it comes to spending money on improvements.

I have made enquiries with a company that supplies beacons that have a ring of flashing LEDs around them, having seen how effective they are in other areas – Peterborough City seems to fit these as standard.  Unfortunately the cost, over £3000 per beacon (higher than standard, because of the integral flood light unit on top) makes funding any improvement from my ward budget almost impossible.  Just to make life a bit more difficult, county highways would still not sanction any changes, unless they received what’s called a commuted sum of £2,700, to cover the increased cost of future maintenance, or replacement due to accident damage.  Understandable, but nonetheless frustrating.

I really do hope that neither the letter writer nor myself, are proven right in our concerns and that the crossing continues to offer genuine safe passage to pedestrians crossing this increasingly busy road.

Eric Pickles finally outed at last as a force for bad – sort of

Peter Oborne, writings in today’s Sunday Telegraph, are music to my ears, if that’s actually possible – writings, ears?    His contribution to an article looking at the issues around the recent widespread flooding, focusses on the political dimension and in particular, the hamfisted and spiteful involvement of one, Eric Pickles MP.

In my opinion, the position of the local council leader, Mike Fisher (behind Pickles wearing glasses, says everything there is to say about Eric Pickles relationship with local government.
Photo with thanks to Croydon Advertiser

No sooner was Eric Pickles put in charge of dealing with the flooding incidents that were impacting a number of areas in the south of England, than he started apportioning blame and apologising for the supposed shortcomings and failures of the ‘blameworthy’.

Having honed his talents for spite and bile on belittling and criticising local government, he had now set about the Environment Agency, for failing to prevent the flooding of thousands of homes and businesses.  By inference, according to Peter Oborne, Pickles was also back stabbing a government colleague, Owen Paterson, laid low by a sight threatening detached retina that required urgent surgery, the cause of Pickles appointment, along with Lord Smith of Finsbury, Chairman of the EA.

For those of us involved in local government, this was very much par for the course with Eric Pickles, especially if there was a reporter’s microphone, or TV crew in sight.  However, and morale to anybody suffering from Pickles’s non-stop spite, is that his big mouthed, brute force handling of his new role, has seen him outed as no more the the “blundering Whitehall meddler” we all knew him to be.

      Disappointingly, Peter Oborne suggests that, up until this point, Eric Pickles was actually considered to be a safe pair of hands,           this despite his unchecked assault on local government, as Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government.  So, unless Owen Paterson and Lord Smith confront David Cameron and tell him in no uncertain terms, it’s him or us, it would seem that local government is stuck with this loud mouthed lout, until May 2015.

Should Spalding have a council?

As the Civic Society, in their latest newsletter, is seeking to resurrect the debate around the creation of a town council for Spalding, I thought it might be worth republishing a previous entry on the subject, from nearly 2 years ago, that was itself a repeat of an even earlier one.  As they say, there’s nothing new in this world.  

Although the financials are somewhat out of date, page 127, of the agenda supplement that will be put before full council of 26th Feb 2014, gives the up to date numbers and hopefully can be viewed here as a PDF document:   http://democracy.sholland.gov.uk/ieListDocuments.aspx?CId=119&MId=1351&Ver=4

In order to help with the conversation that is currently taking place via Twitter, I’ve been asked to offer more detailed comment via my blog page.  Never being one to turn down the opportunity to offer words of (dubious some would say) wisdom, I am starting off by republishing an entry I made in January 2008.

Spalding Special Expenses – Here we go again!

We had a special meeting of the cabinet today, mainly to approve various financial papers.  One of these was a consultation document on the Draft General Fund Revenue (GF) account.  Just like all things financial in local government, including the names they call things (GF!) the information (sorry data, information suggests useful data that makes sense!) is pretty impenetrable, unless you happen to be an accountant.  In my case, having the numeracy skills of a flip flop doesn’t help, so I’m normally the one asking the stupid questions.  Anyway, one of the items in the document was the Spalding Special Expenses and this is the prompt for my latest ramblings.

Spalding doesn’t have a parish or town council, but it does have the equivalent of a parish precept called Spalding Special Expenses (SSE).  This amount makes up a very small part of a Spalding resident’s council tax bill, but actually generates a great deal of debate at this time of year.  The proposed increase this year is about 4.17% or 1.6p a week, making the average total SSE this year £21.49.  Chicken feed most people would say, but even a small amount collected from a lot of people adds up to quite a bit of money (approx £183,000).   However, the underlying issue is how this figure is arrived at, who decides it and what it should be spent on.

The final decision rests with the district council, because Spalding doesn’t have a parish or town council and this is where the debate really gets going.  We have a Spalding Town Forum made up of elected members and some local organisation representatives.  However, it has no executive powers and can only make recommendations to the district council, which can of course choose to ignore them.

Should Spalding have a parish/town council?  I joined the district council in May 99 believing that Spalding should indeed have its own council, after all, how could so many people, 22,000+ then, be so under-represented compared to all of out smaller towns and villages?  However, now that I’ve doing this for a while, I’m less sure of the merits of this, especially when it comes to unravelling the finances, setting it up and paying the admin costs.  A major cost would be employing a clerk in the same way parishes do.  How much? £10k, £15k, £20k, who knows until it actually happens?  Finding a place to call home (an office) could cost anything from £2k to £10k.

What will the people of Spalding get for their money if they had a town council?  Apart from direct control over some very limited areas of council business, maintenance of Spalding Cemetery, Monks house Lane, Hailey Stewart and the provision of Christmas decorations to name a few, not a great deal as it stands!  However, once you have a parish or town council, theoretically the sky’s the limit (that’s a scary thought in itself).  

So, as far as I’m concerned the jury is still very much out on this issue and given the lack of feedback from the public of Spalding, I think it’s going to remain out for some time to come! 

If you want to know more about the issue of creating a parish/town council see: http://www.nalc.gov.uk/About_NALC/What_is_a_parish_or_town_council/What_is_a_council.aspx

Spalding Special Expenses Account –  Published for consultation purposes

  

 

Original 2007/08

  

Draft 2008/09

  

  

  

 

Budget

  

Budget

  

Variance

 

 

£

 

£

 

£

SpaldingCemetery  (see note 1)

 

45,280

 

47,170

 

1,890

Spalding Allotments

 

9,720

 

11,600

 

1,880

   Ayscoughfee (excluding gardens)

 

6,470

 

7,240

 

770

   Halley Stewart (see note 1)

 

31,150

 

41,330

 

10,180

  Thames Road(see note 2)

 

11,990

 

8,430

 

(3,560)

  Fulney Road

 

9,120

 

9,550

 

430

  Monkshouse Lane(see note 3)

 

21,260

 

26,010

 

4,760

Contribution to Voluntary Car Scheme

 

7,700

 

8,000

 

300

Christmas Decorations

 

16,260

 

17,400

 

1,140

Contrib. StMary & StNicolasParishChurch

 

650

 

680

 

30

Contribution to footway lighting (note 4)

 

2,030

 

0

 

(2,030)

Administrative Support

 

3,630

 

3,740

 

110

Bus Shelter maintenance

 

410

 

410

 

0

Spalding Town Centre Promotion (see note 5)

 

4,000

 

2,000

 

(2,000)

Crime prevention (see note 6)

 

2,000

 

0

 

(2,000)

Total Expenditure

  

171,660

  

183,560

  

11,900

Funding

To be funded from Council Tax

 

171,660

 

183,560

 

  

Tax Base

 

8,320

 

8,540

 

  

Band D equivalent

 

20.63

 

21.49

 

  

Council Tax Increase                                                 

 

3.06%

 

4.17%

 

 

  

Balance Brought Forward

 

 

 

2007/08

 

2008/09

 

 

 

 

(36,000)

 

(36,000)

Earmarked for crime prevention

 

 

 

 

 

12,880

Agreed minimum balance 5% expenditure for contingency

 

 

 

8,580

 

9,180

Available Balance

 

 

 

(27,420)

 

 (13,940)

Notes

1. Tree works for Halley Stewart and the Cemetery have been estimated at £3,000 and £8,000 respectively.

2.  A spiking machine for the grounds (£6,000) has been added to Halley Stewart Playing Field.

3.  Maintenance of the Pavilion at Monks House and Legionella testing (£3,900) has been added  to the playing field budget.

4. The budget provision for footway lighting has been removed, since no new lights are currently being planned.

5. The Town Centre promotion budget has been reduced to £2,000, so that the spiking machine can be funded this year and council tax increases maintained.

6. The Crime Prevention budget has been reduced to nil for 2008/09 and balances will be used, should the Herring Lane Car park income not be sufficient to pay for the maintenance of CCTV.  In prior years this budget has not been called upon.

Labour making a grab for power from the bottom?

A letter in today’s edition of the Local Government First magazine, by a Cllr Cookson (Labour), advises all readers to prepare for Labour’s plans to impose proportional representation on to local government, once they are in power.
I believe that all non-Labour councillors should take this advice, but not for the reasons promoted in the Labour Party document.
An online search reveals that the Electoral Reform Society (not to be confused with the Electoral Commission) has decided to promote Labour’s viewpoint, by publicising the document on its website, suggesting that it might almost be viewed as more about the democratic process than actual politics.  Despite being in existence for over 100 years, the ERS has made little headway in their ambitions for proportional representation.  As such, it should come as no surprise to see them promote a political document supporting its introduction, all be it at the local government level initially.
It’s not actually my goal to argue for, or against the issue as such, but rather to advise all non-Labour councillors to take a look at this document, so that they can be on their guard should councillor Cookson’s Party ever return to power. Far from being a springboard to greater and more even local democratic representation for the electorate, it would appear that the main purpose for seeking any change, is to increase the numbers of Labour Party foot soldiers embedded in local government.
The document unashamedly states, ‘…..the effects of introducing a more proportional system for local elections are more likely to unite the party…….’. Admittedly, in its forward, the document does suggest that all parties (hence the lowercase reference to ‘the party’ I assume) could benefit in some way from such a change, but it is difficult not to see a far less magnanimous reasoning behind this proposal.
On the face of it, this looks like it could be a win, win situation for us all, especially the electorate.  However, my question is a simple one, if it’s that good and the document works hard to suggest that it is, why use local government as your guinea pigs?  Put another way, why not do unto yourselves first, as you would do to others? I also have a concern about the norm for local government becoming ‘no overall control’, if this were to happen.  So be warned fellow non-Labour councillors; they appear to have a cunning plan.

Does anybody really believe in local government anymore?

Below is my email response to a candidate in the forthcoming Conservative Councillors’ Association (CCA) elections.   In a recent campaign email they suggested that these elections were important because ministers for the Department for Communities and Local Government (DCLG), took notice of the results and in particular the numbers that vote.
‘Thank you for your email.  I was most intrigued by your comment that (D)CLG ministers take notice of these elections.  Could you please expand on what exactly you mean by take notice?
My experience of DCLG ministers to date and I won’t even name the most obvious one, as I see them all in the same light, is that they are wholly negative, spiteful and completely divisive, when it come to local government.
Even with Conservatives in the lead at the Local Government Association(LGA),  DCLG continues it’s onslaught on local government, at every opportunity.  This universal condemnation is dressed up as an attempt to ‘out’ bad Councils, with the majority supposedly non-Conservative.  However, as far as the public is concerned, all councils are now lazy, over staffed, over paid and to be condemned in the local and national press at every opportunity.  Finally, their politicians, should be voted out of office as soon as the opportunity presents itself.
As such, one could suggest that having a seat at the table, when your own party is in government, all be it in coalition, achieves little and may even fetter those in positions at  organistations such as the CCA, ability to defend local government as robustly as many of us minions would want, or like.  Good luck with your bid for election.’
I suppose what I would really have liked to tell this particular candidate, is that I would vote for them if they promised to give Eric Pickles a bloody good kicking (verbally at least) at every opportunity they got, once they were to be elected!  Of course this is always a vain hope, given that most of those standing for such positions are likely to have the sort of aspirations that mean they will be seeking further advancement within the establishment, something that is unlikely to happen if you upset that establishment.  Oh well, come the revolution…..