Miles Evans is Deputy Leader of Newbury Town Council and on the approved list of Conservative Party Parliamentary Candidates.
Due to a cocktail of lower funding to local authorities from Westminster, and greater demand for adult social care and other statutory services, alternative and innovative funding streams are being urgently sought by councils up and down the land.
Some have turned to commercial investments to raise capital, while most are driving hard and fast efficiencies. Some services are even being withdrawn in their entirety.
There is of course another option, which while not a panacea, is proving vital in shoring up investment and exercising the cross-community collaboration necessary to retain services.
And that is devolution to the third-tier of government.
Interestingly, when you speak with party activists and politicos up and down the country, many appear resistant to such an approach. Perhaps prejudiced by what I’ll term the ‘Vicar of Dibley cliché’ – whereby affable folk mean well, but are ultimately ineffectual.
In Newbury where I live, this couldn’t be further from the truth. In almost four years since I was elected to Newbury Town Council and two since I was elected to a senior leadership role, we’ve upscaled our operation, extending our reach above and beyond our traditional constructs, thanks to effective devolution from West Berkshire Council, also Conservative-run.
Through combating the Liberal Democrats’ legacy of extraordinary largesse, and exercising prudent financial management of ratepayers’ hard-earned contributions, we’ve been able to allocate £30,000 to ensure Newbury Library, a valued community hub for all ages, remains open. This is no hand out. Our contributions are structured to be payable on a quarterly basis and subject to stringent criteria being met.
It’s a similar story across town at the recently reopened Wash Common Community Library, where the two Conservative administrations have worked in harmony to establish leasing and insurance arrangements, which in turn have placed volunteers at the heart of running this local service.
As I outlined in my speech to party conference in October, it is incumbent upon us all to dispel this misplaced Blairite sense of entitlement, and empower our communities to work on local solutions. Or a simple mantra – small state over nanny state.
It’s not just libraries where devolution has worked to the benefit of local residents. Anyone familiar with Newbury knows it’s the crossroads of southern England. This presents the town with an almost unique income stream from visitors driving across the country, primarily between Cardiff to the west and London to the east. It’s clear why they stop. Newbury has a vibrant high street, a fascinating museum, a market dating back to Anglo-Saxon times, and a beautiful park on the banks of a historic canal. But when the town’s public lavatories were closed for a three month period in 2016, coach operators threatened a boycott. Again, Conservative district and town councillors arrived at a devolved solution, whereby the town council has taken responsibility for this facility to safeguard inward investment.
At a recent consultation ahead of our next and final budget before the local elections, we found favourable support for Newbury’s devolution programme. As with colleagues across the country, the challenge remains balancing a demand for services against an electorate fatigued by annual increases in council tax.
While some aspects of our devolution programme are more tangible than others, we have additionally used economies of scale to drive down costs on items such as grounds maintenance. With both the district and town councils responsible for these why not combine our efforts to save our ratepayers’ money?
The common threads to all of this are prudent financial management and collaborative engagement with colleagues at all levels of government.
With local elections around the corner it is imperative we make our case, as we know all too well how our opponents fare against these criteria.
Nobody I know has entered public life to make cuts, however necessary they may be. The method of working we’ve established across Newbury proves devolution can serve to protect those services our residents hold most dear.