Grantham Journal letter: Sharing power brings problems
May I join the debate on councils in Lincolnshire?
On 24th January 2014, I attended a Lincolnshire County Council budget meeting as I have often done over many years. This one was chaired by the Leader Coun Martin Hill. I raised the Westminster consensus view that councils will continue to be required deliver much better value, so existing council structures must be revised.
Since 1974 there has been one Lincolnshire County Council, and seven district councils who together share power in Lincolnshire. Sharing power creates wasteful turf wars. The many town councils, parish councils and parish meetings have little or no power. As expected, Coun Hill responded to me by suggesting that the way forward was to abolish all seven district councils and have one all-purpose (unitary) Lincolnshire Council. I begged to differ. Coun Hill seemed unaccustomed to being challenged. Sadly, there was no meeting of minds between us.
This debate needs to be better informed with facts, so here goes.
Coun Hill advised that some in Westminster suggest that 400,000 is the minimum population for an efficient council. How come, said I, when for many years Rutland has been an efficient all-purpose unitary council with only 26 councillors working for a population of less than 40,000? Westminster is wrong, said I. Coun Hill could only bluster.
The smallest district council in Lincolnshire (Boston Borough) has a population of 66,000, probably not counting all the migrants. SKDC has 137,000. If little Rutland can operate a respected council, why not upgrade each of the seven Lincolnshire district councils into all-purpose unitary councils, and abolish Lincolnshire County Council?
This would free the 725,000 population of Lincolnshire from the rule of a nine-person Leader and cabinet in a remote Lincolnshire County Council with a total of 77 costly elected councillors, of which 15 come from the South Kesteven area including five from Grantham. The savings would be large, including over £1 million for the allowances and expenses of the 77, just for starters.
I decline to follow Coun Hill in making a wild guess at the savings, because these are just cost savings beloved of accountants but ignore the more important value element. I am sure that Lincolnshire County Council could save lots of cash by outsourcing its central administration to the Scottish Highlands or offshoring it to China, but would this deliver value to its customers? There is a value to having a council close to its customers, and it will be for those customers to make that value judgement.
I was slightly involved with upgrading Rutland from being a mere district of remote Leicestershire to being the all-purpose unitary Rutland Council. We did not play the expensive game of musical chairs so common in the 1972-1974 Ted Heath reorganization shambles. Rutland’s upgrade did not involve everyone being made redundant and being immediately re-employed to do the same job with a bigger job title, a bigger office carpet and a much bigger salary.
Rutland’s upgrade was not a piece of cake and some blood was spilled, but it was done with low transitional costs. Adding social services and highways (and education which now is done differently) to the existing district structure proved a very effective way of delivering all services. It moved Rutland’s local government closer to its customers. All local issues get quickly sorted out locally at Oakham, not in faraway Leicester. Turf wars have ended.
Rutlanders elect only 26 councillors, many whom have big jobs to do within a Leader and Cabinet model now widely use. They are better held to account, and duds are more quickly removed.
Now some of my opinions.
For the seven upgraded all-purpose unitary Lincolnshire Councils based on the existing districts, some elected councillors’ seats should be culled out. In the Leader and Cabinet governance model, the magnificent seven SKDC councillors hold power, another dozen have smaller duties. But half of SKDC’s 58 elected Councillors add no value, but pocket big allowances and expenses. 30 SKDC councillors should be quite enough.
Each new electoral ward should have revised boundaries to equalize representation. Voters in each ward should be represented by only one elected councillor who will therefore be better known to them and so can be better held to account. National and local government are as chalk and cheese, so council elections should never be held with a General Election. Of course transparency is essential, so please, no more institutionally corrupt secret voting, else FIFA and SKDC will be spoken of in the same breath.