Judy Terry is a marketing professional who stood down as a councillor in May
The UK is heavily indebted. Why? Because the Labour Government spent money it didn’t have, so instead of building up a war chest during the good times, it borrowed to fund disastrous wars and to ‘bribe’ the electorate (remember the £75m to ‘save’ MG Rover just before the 2005 general election?) whilst racking up further debt in interest rates, and badly drafted PFI programmes. Gordon Brown also had a habit of offering local authorities start-up funding for new projects, leading to an explosion in council recruitment, which ended up costing a fortune, and diverted attention from statutory responsibilities.
It is this irrational approach to spending public money that most concerns me about ‘devolution’, although I sympathise with the widely held view that national politicians often fail to understand the ‘real issues’ in local communities. Parliament is not called the Westminster bubble for nothing…
As a Mancunian by birth and a Londoner by upbringing, I applaud the Chancellor’s commitment to devolving more power to the north west, with the creation of a Mayor with added responsibilities as Police and Crime Commissioner to rebuild a region which was an industrial powerhouse for generations. This model has worked in London, although it took Boris to curb unnecessary bureaucracy and to get a firm grip on the finances.
Devolution will work in the Manchester metropolitan areas because, instead of continuing to compete against each other, all the local councils have signed up to it. They can see the advantages of strategic joint working to benefit their wider communities. But, tribal politics must not be allowed to get in the way of making the right decisions for local people.
Regrettably, the customer (i.e. the taxpayer) is rarely genuinely at the heart of policy development instead, there is a tendency to design most services to suit local politicians’ short term electoral ambitions, and staff and their working patterns. The operative words here are public and service, yet there tends to be little flexibility to make life easier and more convenient for the users, who are also the paymasters, and any challenge is usually rebuffed. Promises of ‘full consultation’ are either forgotten, or outcomes ignored because councils (and others in the NHS, education, public transport etc) think they know best. The private sector simply couldn’t survive with such an approach.
Transparency is another word which trips off public sector leaders’ tongues, but it can be impossible to get information, even with an FOI, especially when the ‘sensitivity’ argument is deployed. The north west must ensure that their new regional administrative model means that the public has the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth; this won’t always make the political leaders popular, but it will bring them trust and respect. So I expect to see tight – and public – scrutiny of budgets and business plans, proper project management, and a focus on what local people actually want, avoiding the temptation to invest in vanity projects which bring acres of publicity, but little or no economic benefit.
You know what? The vast majority of people are only interested in having their bins collected, streets kept clean and potholes fixed! As they struggle to pay their own bills, they don’t want local authorities increasing the burden by raising council tax for some spurious reason. It shocks me when I hear some councillors say, ‘it’s only another £1 a week’, for the fourth successive year, when they have done nothing to justify the increase, and are also raising council rents at the same rate annually. Not surprisingly, it all adds up to ‘unaffordable’.
Providing the right housing is essential, but why borrow to build more council homes, when tenants can buy them at a discount after a few years? There is a better way, and the Policy Exchange’s recent report, ‘Freeing Housing Associations’ is recommended reading. Nevertheless, the social housing sector largely suffers from the same aversion to change as local authorities, and – as the report suggests – they need to be more adventurous.
The key to success in the north west will be job creation – so please, please, talk to business, and listen to business; employ people in the economic development team who understand business, and the need to be proactive, not just to write endless reports. Incentivise them if necessary because results will count, but be transparent about it. And, of course, maximise the potential of your Local
Enterprise Partnership, by communicating what is available for start-ups, SME’s and established businesses wanting to invest.
Let’s see some revolutionary thinking, to encourage aspiration and entrepreneurs, policies to attract the very best teachers and other professionals with original ideas and enthusiasm – people willing to take risks, who should be supported and not stifled. Forget prejudices about youth – it is the young people who are the future inventors, not least in IT, creating new ways of doing things.
We can all learn much from how the north west adapts to their new challenges; it is an exciting time for the area, so long as the ‘customer’ is not forgotten. Good luck. I only wish I could be part of it.