Mark Wallace of the Taxpayers Alliance believes that town twinning may once have been a justified cause for municipal spending – but no longer.
It’s become such a cliché for every possible town to be twinned with numerous obscure places around the world that it has become a joke, from The Simpsons to comedy club stand-up acts. But is there really a point to it?
Twinning originally kicked off in the aftermath of the Second World War, as a way of forging links between countries that had been mortal enemies. Against that background, there may have been a justification for introducing people from Germany to British cities and vice versa – (on the ground, rather than from the air, this time, though). It is certainly true that if you see people as humans rather than unimaginable aliens, it is harder to make war against them.
60 years later, though, what does twinning bring Britain’s towns and cities in the 21st century? Many places are twinned with half a dozen or more municipalities around the globe, but the activity seems to have become self-perpetuating, something that is just done, without questioning why that should be the case.
More often that not, it does involve costs to councils and therefore to taxpayers. Councillors and council officers travel back and forth to the twin destinations. In the case of some towns, British taxpayers even fund trips by foreign representatives to visit the UK.
Gifts are exchanged, too – indeed, this happens so often that more than one councillor has told me that they have visited twin towns abroad and handed over a present that typifies their home area only to find that the recipients already have several identical gifts from previous visitors. It is hard to imagine a more absurd activity than travelling abroad only to give someone a gift that they already own, because you have given them exactly the same thing repeatedly in the past.
Some councils have started to scale back their twinning activities to being twinned in name only, putting an end to the international trips that cost so much but bring so little to their local taxpayers. Now Doncaster, under the leadership of directly elected Mayor Peter Davies, of the English Democrats Party, has cancelled its five twinnings outright.
So is there any real loss involved in putting an end to twinning?
The argument that council twinning is essential to keep peace doesn’t seem to hold water any more. So far, at least, hostilities have not broken out between Doncaster and Herten, their divorced ex-twin in Germany. Indeed, many would argue that the updated version of the peace argument, that twinning adds to a sense of “global citizenship”, means in reality that it is good propaganda for bodies like the EU, which taxpayers certainly shouldn’t have to pay for.
But can twinned councils learn good municipal practice from each other? Well, perhaps they can, but in the age of the internet there surely is no need for the rigmarole and cost of twinning to learn how people do things abroad.
The argument in favour of twinning that has the most potential is that it helps international trade, but even that looks increasingly redundant. For a start, it is businesses that forge trade opportunities, not councils. Furthermore, there are already a plethora of private and public bodies, from the Chambers of Commerce to
Regional Development Agencies and UK Trade and Investment, working on the issue of building Britain’s trade links. Adding crests to a town’s “Welcome to…” sign and sending councillors on the occasional jolly is hardly likely to prove a deal breaker.
There are many traditions in British politics that are beneficial and useful, as well as historic. Twinning, whilst possibly justified when it was first conceived, is no longer one of them.