We have 650 MPs in the Westminster Parliament, soon to be reduced to 600 as constituency boundaries are re-drawn. A sacrifice unlikely to be repeated across local government.
Yet, across the whole of Suffolk and Norfolk, alone, we have 782 councillor positions across 16 councils including, respectively 75 and 84 on the two counties. Ten per cent of all councillors serve on two authorities where numbers range from 27 in Forest Heath in west Suffolk to 62 in King’s Lynn & West Norfolk.
Given that the average stipend is around £8,000-10,000 a year, plus special responsibility allowances as a committee chairman or Cabinet Member, as well as expenses – not to mention the expensive annual elections in some areas – the cost to the public purse is significant.
So how can this be justified at a time when financial largesse is supposed to be contracting? But someone said to me the other day, ‘being a councillor is becoming a career choice for some people’, although few publish a diary enabling voters to evaluate their performance.
As the two counties, with the LEP, bid for Devolution, there doesn’t appear to be any attempt to radically reform the existing structures by reducing the number of councils and councillors to create a more streamlined organisation which would be more effective in delivering truly joined up services representing greater value for money.
As the local paper (The East Anglian Daily Times) says:
“Instead of a wholesale reorganisation, the mish-mash of proposals is aimed at creating an amorphous gloop of joint committees of different councils and the LEP in a desperate attempt to save the jobs of councillors. Trying to bolt on new joint administration functions is a nonsense…”
It will also create the very worst layered bureaucracy, delaying any decision making, with no-one actually knowing what anyone else is doing. Least of all the Council Taxpayer…
The Department for Communities and Local Government have stated that they will only transfer major powers to areas that adopt a directly elected executive mayor for the combined authority area. This is absolutely essential, because without it no one person will be held to account for the ‘amorphous gloop’, build confidence, and take a single message to Government, and businesses across the region and the globe to attract new investment and tourism.
Because it has lacked that strong voice over generations, East Anglia has suffered from poor transport infrastructure, education, and inward investment, yet Suffolk and Norfolk have a combined economy worth £32 billion and are leaders in agri-tech research, energy, and ICT research and development, the creative industries and the insurance sector. Adnams and Greene King are world exporters, as are Muntons, the maltsters.
So, if the region is to capitalise on the huge potential Devolution offers, it has to get it right. Strong leadership and short lines of communication are the keys to success; if that means holding back, allowing time to review how the new powers can be implemented, then so be it. At present, the response from council leaders doesn’t offer much hope: ‘devolution doesn’t allow for a wholesale structural reorganisation of local government because it would be a distraction’, we’re told.
“We had a positive meeting with Government representatives and have been asked to work up our proposals. This is a once in a generation opportunity to secure more for our economy and communities. It is no more than we deserve.” Note the ‘we’ – this response came from council leaders, themselves, and none wants to be out of a job come devolution.
Those of us who agree with the principles of autonomy for wider public sector services devolved regionally nevertheless expect our local elected representatives to be much more ambitious in their proposals. This means providing evidence of tighter management/delivery/procurement (including use of the numerous council buildings dotted across the region), which would be closer to a unitary model, and how that would be sustained. We also want it to be acknowledged that reaching agreement on an elected Executive Mayor, combining two very independent rural counties under a single leadership, will require much broader integration, rather than a mish-mash of the status quo.
At the moment, since all local authorities will have to sign up to the final plans, following full consultation with ‘stakeholders’, agreement to tighter unitary-style governance seems unlikely because none of the 782 councillors will choose to be sacrificed, just as turkeys won’t be voting for their place at the Christmas table!