Cllr James Binns is the Cabinet Member for Health and Leisure on New Forest District Council.
When one thinks of the European Union I doubt ‘local government’ springs to mind. Nevertheless the EU’s inefficiency, waste, bureaucracy and interference within our local authorities has been to the detriment of our communities. As a local Councillor, now Portfolio Holder on New Forest District Council, I have seen this first hand. In local government, I tend to find that those Councillors who argue that the United Kingdom is better off within the European Union often base their assessment on the issues of jobs and economic growth, as well as the sum of £8 billion which the UK receives to spend on local projects.
As a District Councillor, the thought of having some of that £8 billion to spend on local initiatives within one’s area is indeed an exciting idea. In today’s era of cash-strapped local authorities, the prospect of losing this significant amount of funding is a decision not taken lightly. The Remain argument suggests that without this EU financial support, our local communities and economies will suffer. I suggest quite the reverse. Although it is true that the European Union have set aside significant funding for local authorities to spend on community projects, this has often been in an ineffective and inefficient way. As a member of the Local Government Association, I am aware that the LGA itself has argued that previous EU funding programmes have been too fragmented, too centrally driven, and unnecessarily challenging to access. Given such problems, it is surely the case that funds for local governments should be managed, commissioned, and delivered on a local Council level and not by the bureaucratic and inefficient EU.
I will give you some examples. A proposed ‘Gender Equal’ cultural centre, designated to receive a budget of £760,000, was never built but the money was lost in a sea of European bureaucracy.
A £358,000 ‘Marathon for a United Europe’ to promote and support European ideals, never occurred despite soundings being made to the LGA in the late 2000s. Finally, a project to develop active European citizenship amongst children by getting them to draw pictures of each other, again, was designated £358,000 but never took off, thankfully.
In my own area of the New Forest, a ‘Strategic Action Group’ was created by an EU diktat and given a budget of £1.4 million of public money. After the group had created their ‘corporate’ action plan, the SAG then set about spending this money on the forestry sector, farm diversification and community facilities and services. Now if you know the New Forest well, you will understand that we already have nearly 40 Parish and Town Councils, a District Council, and a National Park which covers much of the New Forest District area. Each of these bodies has their own local plan, however it is implicit that all of the individual plans should work together in conjunction to that of the Districts. This is to ensure accountability and that we move together, as one community, in the same economic and social direction of travel. The SAG on the other hand did not have to comply with these established norms and the group itself comprised unelected bureaucrats, civil servants, public sector workers, and healthcare professionals.
Quite simply this group had no accountability or mandate to anyone and if, in their wisdom, these quangocrats believed that the priorities of the democratically elected District Council were wrong, then they would use their finances to undermine our projects. Whilst the District Council was financing initiatives to promote the New Forest as a tourist destination to grow our local economy, the SAG decided that they would use their funds to deter the public from accessing parts of the Forest, or to discourage people from coming at all, so concerned were they as to the detrimental impact that visitors would have on our area despite little evidence. The SAG eroded our democratic principles, inefficiently allocated its resources and wasted its finances in the pursuit of undermining Council projects.
Fundamentally, there was no need for the creation of something that was effectively trying to be another local authority in the New Forest. The money the SAG had been allocated was unnecessary, efficient only in wasting taxpayer money – and counterproductive. As the Portfolio Holder responsible for Health and Leisure, including community matters, I am only too aware of what good this European money could have done. It only costs my department £2,500 to run a series of community cooking class for men over the age of 55 aimed at tackling social isolation and poor health relating to bad nutrition. Yet trying to get the money to keep this service going is becoming increasingly difficult. For £40,000 we fund community minibuses, scooters that young people can hire for £1 a day to get to work or college, support young carers, help to fund Nightstop and provide support and advice to community groups. However, because of government cutbacks and general funding streams drying up, every year we find it increasingly difficult to keep these initiatives going.
However, instead of Europe providing funding directly to local authorities and instead, in their supreme arrogance, ignoring the District Councils and their understanding of community issues, we find that public money is replicated, inefficiently allocated, poorly managed, and generally wasted.
Crucially, local communities would, I believe, be in a better position financially in the event of Brexit. As Britain gets far less back from the EU than when we put in, post-Brexit, we will in fact have more money available to give to local authorities to enable them to improve local infrastructure and so enhance their economies and communities. Now admittedly it is not certain that our former EU contribution would be spent in this way. Nevertheless I am convinced that the certainty of removing the EU from further interference within our local communities is worth that risk.
It is therefore clear that far from damaging the economies and societies of our local communities, Brexit will actually be a significant benefit and our localities will flourish and thrive. When someone says to you ‘but what about the EU funding that we’ll lose if we vote Leave” - just remember that that money isn’t Europe’s money, it’s yours. There are significant financial benefits for local authorities if we vote to leave. The EU’s interference in our communities is not often seen by many, but for those of us that do see the wastage at a time when significant savings are being made, one has to wonder what Europe’s real priorities are. For those of us in local government the choice is clear, we must vote leave and convince our constituents to do the same.