Wednesday, May 23, 2018

Creeting St Peter: a new Chair reflects...

Well, that was somewhat unexpected.

I had turned up at Monday night’s Annual Parish Meeting and Annual Parish Council Meeting (not the same thing at all) with the sole expectation of a smoothly run meeting, the pleasure of some time with my fellow Parish councillors and a relatively early finish. Our Chair, Machala, is not one for lengthy meetings and chairs them with good humour and efficiency.

The Parish Meeting went according to plan, with the reports from the Chair, the County and District Councillors, the Parochial Church Council and our Tree Warden - we’ve learnt not to expect a report from the Suffolk Constabulary - and we then segued into the Parish Council meeting immediately thereafter.

The first item of business was the election of the Chair for 2018/19, and it was noted by a fellow councillor that Machala had originally intended to serve as Chair for no more than two years. Frankly, I was of the view that she’d done a good job and was perfectly happy for her to continue, but she agreed that this was the case and that, in any event, there was the possibility that she might not be able to serve another full term anyway.

I should have been suspicious at this point, and the suggestion that there should be a natural progression from Vice Chair to Chair did make me wonder, especially as I was the incumbent Vice Chair. I was thus nominated and seconded, and, in the blink of a procedural eye, I found myself Chair of Creeting St Peter Parish Council.

It’s an appointment with immediate effect, so I signed the papers proffered to me by our Parish Clerk, Jennie, and set off, running through the agenda.

Funnily enough, despite more than thirty years in politics, I’ve not chaired very often, although I have had to deal with some pretty haphazard chairing over that time. What that means is that, whilst I may have quite a bit to learn about how to do the job, I have some pretty good ideas in terms of how not to do it.

I managed to steer Council through its business in about an hour, thanked everyone and brought my first meeting to a close.

So far, so good.

I went home, and explained to Ros what had happened. “What do I do now?”, I asked. Her advice was to find out exactly what my responsibilities are, both legally and organisationally.

And so, the reading begins. Luckily, there are plenty of resources out there, primarily via the National Association of Local Councils, and its county affiliate here in Suffolk. I've already contacted the Suffolk Association of Local Councils office to seek access to the NALC website, and notified them of my election.

I also need to think about my priorities for 2018/19, and what I might hope to achieve during my term in office. Of course, this is limited by an obvious lack of resource, and I don’t intend to do anything that is contrary to our ethos as a Council, whereby everyone has a role to play, and we eschew the ‘strong leader’ model so beloved by central government.

I’d better get on then...

Thursday, May 17, 2018

Ros in the Lords: East Suffolk (Local Government Changes) Order 2018

It’s not all Brexit glamour in the House of Lords, and whilst most attention is on the series of defeats inflicted on the Government with regard to the European Union (Withdrawal) Bill, the business of government limps along otherwise.

Here in Suffolk, the various District and Borough Councils have been pairing off in an attempt to staunch the financial bleeding, merging back office functions, creating joint teams covering planning, council tax collection, and all of the various things done at sub-County level. Waveney and Suffolk Coastal have sought to merge into East Suffolk, whilst St Edmundsbury and Forest Heath aim to merge into a new West Suffolk District. To do so requires authority from Parliament, and thus the appropriate Orders, allowing them to proceed, came to the Lords recently.

Usually, these go through without much comment, but there were questions about the quality of the consultation, and thus then Secondary Legislation Select Committee raised some concerns. And, to be honest, the consultation did look a bit lopsided, with many of the voices in favour coming from other (Conservative) Leaders of neighbouring, or in the case of Suffolk County Council, overlapping authorities. Parish and Town Councils didn’t seem to be quite so keen, and in that context, Ros spoke in her capacity as a resident of Suffolk...

My Lords, I also speak as a Suffolk resident of almost 40 years, although not of either of the areas covered today. I am a former district and county councillor in Suffolk so I have a keen interest in this. 
I have always advocated unitary government for Suffolk, perhaps going back to the old, two-council days before 1974, or possibly 1973, with serious devolution to the towns and parishes which want it. I felt that way because I truly believe that service delivery would be better if we brought together planning and transport, for example, under one council. Local people would not have to sort out which council does what. As a councillor, I know that that is a significant issue. The financial savings that can be made from creating unitary councils have been well established across the country where this has been done. 
Opposition to my view has always been on the grounds of saying, “Well, district councils are important because they’re small and they’re local and the wards are small. Everybody knows everyone and they’re close to the people”. I buy that; I can see that argument. However, it seems that in merging these councils—I am talking about councils as opposed to their back-office functions—big wards will be created and the council offices will, in many cases, be moved away from the area they represent. The advantages of districts are lost without the benefits of unitary government. Bins will still be emptied by one council and the waste disposed of by another, for example. 
I remain concerned about that. I accept the point that Suffolk councils have been in the process of merging their back-office functions to save costs for some years now. That is entirely sensible. However, my council in mid-Suffolk, having done that with the neighbouring authority of Babergh, has now gone completely mad and moved its joint offices to the middle of Ipswich. There is no local connection there. If you are going to defend three-tier local government on the grounds of local connection, you have to show local connection. 
I am worried that all this is being driven by the parlous state of local government finance in this country, rather than some sort of rational, thought-out plan. It feels as though people who live in Suffolk are somehow not being properly engaged with—I will come back to ​that—or brought along in the process. It was interesting that the Secondary Legislation Committee shared some of those concerns. I appreciate the trouble that the Minister has gone to to allay those. Nevertheless, there is still a lot of work to do—to be charitable—to convince people in Suffolk and in town and parish councils that the proposals will work. 
To give what I think is an important piece of context, the report that went to Waveney and Suffolk Coastal District Councils on 14 March 2016 stated: 
“The potential benefits and pitfalls of unitary local government have been well rehearsed previously”— 
through LGR—and, 
“have not been reproduced here. It is uncertain whether the new Secretary of State will be open to such discussions … Similarly, this could not be done in any format without … an impact upon Suffolk County Council. It is assumed at this stage (and without any discussion with the County Council) that this would be strongly resisted”, 
by the county council. In other words, in East Suffolk at least, this was kicked off in 2016 without really knowing what the Secretary of State or the county council thought. 
With regard to the support to which the Minister referred, the problem was that nobody ever had a say about the benefits of unitary councils—which I think, had it been put as an option, would have been more significant—but that did not take place because a unitary authority had been ruled out. 
This continues to be a model. On 21 March this year, the leader of Suffolk County Council announced that he had commissioned a report from ResPublica to look at options for local government in Suffolk over the coming years. This afternoon, the local press are reporting that he has suspended this work, saying that it is because his opponent in a leadership bid is opposed to it. I have no idea whether the second part is true but it shows, given the importance of local government to Suffolk and the services that it delivers, that it deserves better than this.

Tuesday, May 15, 2018

FIRC: a personal response to the Alderdice Report

Federal International Relations Committee will be discussing its response to the Alderdice Report on Thursday evening, and we have been asked to give some thought to the matter. And, perhaps because my expectations are quite low in terms of useful outcomes, it seems sensible to put my thoughts into the public domain. I’ve adapted the five questions posed in the report, in order to make them suitable for the Committee...

Are there barriers to participation for BAME members? If so, what and where are they?

The barriers tend to be similar to those affecting other underrepresented groups. The cost of attending international events, and the lack of financial support for all but the six members of the ALDE Party Council, reduce the pool of potential participants to those who can afford airfares and accommodation, and this is even more so for Liberal International, whose events are, for obvious reasons, more far flung.

Given that the Party has no budget for international relations activity, other than grudgingly paying our membership fees for both ALDE and Liberal International, and that there is a danger that there will be no staff resource available at all shortly, it is hard to envisage how this might change. A fund to support potential delegates to international events might address the issue of participation, but would not be seen as a high priority at the moment.

Ironically, recent delegations to ALDE Party Congresses have seen an improvement in the diversity of our delegates, and much credit should go to the Party’s former International Officer, Harriet Shone, who did much to make this possible.

Do barriers differ in the Committee?

In terms of the Committee, diversity isn’t bad, with two directly elected BAME members out of six, plus the Federal Board’s nominee. However, the representatives of all of the other various groups entitled to nominate members of the Committee are all white (men), and the co-opted members are both white.

How effective are existing mechanisms/procedures in addressing the issue?

Elections have clearly been effective, nominees have not, thus far. That said, election results offer little guarantee of appropriate levels of BAME representation, and attention needs to be given to the three potential co-options as a way of making good any deficiency. This requires more active and imaginative approaches by Committee Members than has sometimes been the case recently.

Does the Committee do enough to engage with BAME voters and ensure accessibility for potential BAME members?

The mechanism for formally reaching out beyond the Party is unclear, and the Committee has no means of doing so other than articles in Liberal Democrat Voice, lacking as it does a presence on the Party website, or on social media. The communication plan is not taken seriously, and no effective effort has been made to take it forward.

What further steps should, or could, be taken by the Committee to address the issues identified in the review?

Firstly, the Committee needs to strengthen its profile amongst Party members, so as to increase the pool of potential candidates in future elections, and increase engagement. Secondly, it needs to establish what people might be interested in, becoming less Eurocentric along the way if at all possible. Jointly hosting events with groups such as Chinese Liberal Democrats would be a way of doing that. Building links with the various “Friends of...” groups would also help.