Friday, December 04, 2009

Thoughts from the Train: is there a point where local democracy becomes an expensive vanity?

I am a democrat to my very fingertips. It was my fascination with enabling people to take an active role in determining those who should represent them that led me to take my first steps into the political arena, and I remain an enthusiastic supporter of campaigns to improve our democracy. And yet, I find myself wondering about what is an appropriate size for a democratic unit.

As a Parish councillor, I am responsible for a precept of £4,000, 70% of which is spent on the salary and expenses of our Parish Clerk. In the case of Creeting St Peter, we're rather lucky, in that we have a very good, very knowledgable one. However, because we pay the going rate, we are left with little in the way of resources to do much more than light the streets and cut the grass. We could do more potentially, but we would need to increase the precept quite significantly to do so, and I for one am not keen. Times are hard, and any extra services would need to add tangible value.

Of course, the trend in local government is for units at the same level to come together, sharing senior officers, pooling contracts to achieve financial savings. The Government in Westminster has pushed for a new unitary tier, abolishing the counties and districts to strip out one tier of bureaucracy but increasing the sense of remoteness between governed and governing.

Whilst we all want our representatives to be accessible, and we want to have an opportunity to influence those decisions that affect us, are we willing to pay the price that such access entails? Instead, should we bring smaller units together to retain a local strand whilst reducing costs? It is an uncomfortable question to ask, and yet we have a duty to consider what might be best for our communities.

At the moment, Suffolk is in the midst of the Local Government Review process. If either of the proposals is adopted, Creeting St Peter will be the only representative unit between a unitary county or unitary 'Rural Suffolk'. Will it be sufficiently robust to handle the strains of an uneven power relationship? Will it be in a position to take on responsibility for additional services currently provided by the District Council, and will the Unitary be able to manage the implications of differential devolution of responsibilities to Town Councils like Bury St Edmunds and Stowmarket and to Parishes like Creeting St Peter and Badley?

You see, size matters. And whilst we villagers have a certain pride in our little corners of paradise, that pride comes with a price tag. At some point in the future, the question of whether that price is an acceptable one will come a-knocking, and Parish councillors like myself will be steeling themselves to come up with an answer. It isn't something that I'll be looking forward to...


Robert Doyle said...

Giving us the absolute sum of £4000 doesn't allow us to take any view on value for money. How many households is it divided between?

What other budgets (if any) does the parish council have a substantial say over as a statutory consultee?

Mark Valladares said...


103 households, and we have no say over anyone else's budget, I'm afraid to say.