Tuesday, May 15, 2018

My First Extraordinary Council Meeting, Or: (How I Learnt to Stop Worrying and Love Losing Arguments)

You may think that spending your Monday night at a Council meeting about local government reorganisation isn't a great topic for a blog post, but here it is. Last night was an "Extraordinary Meeting" - which I take to mean it was unscheduled as the motion at hand was too important or time dependent to wait until the next meeting. I don't have any particular insider information, so this is pretty much only my take on what I thought happened.

The background to the meeting is that Northamptonshire is currently run by a two tier council system where the County Council looks after some functions like schools, roads and libraries and there are 7 district councils which have a smaller area and cover things like planning, waste collection and licensing. The County Council is currently in a dire financial situation, being unable to pass a decent budget and having central government oversight in an effort to re-organise and turn things around.

The motion for the extraordinary meeting was about how the new council(s) should be formed. There seems to be no opposition to the idea that whatever replaces the current model will be unitary based i.e. - all local government functions for that area will be provided by the same council. There is however different ideas on how many and what the boundaries should be. A report by Deloitte proposed 4 options:  A single Unitary, 2 unitaries (West & North), 2 unitaries (Northampton & Shire) or 3 Unitaries (West, North and Northampton).

The motion was proposed by the leaders of the 3 main parties in Northampton, which suggests cross party support. It backed a 3 Unitary model with a separate Unitary council for Northampton with extended boundaries to encompass new developments. It called for a public consultation and an exercise to make the case for a Northampton Unitary.

The 2018 central government inspection of the county council was so critical it said that the status quo had to change and "Northamptonshire County Council (NCC) has failed to comply with its duty under the Local Government Act 1999 (as amended) to provide best value in the delivery of its services". It favoured establishment of a two unitary model with Daventry, South Northants and Northampton in one and Wellingborough, Kettering, Corby & East Northants in another.

I attended as a member of the public and spoke in favour of the motion. I had put forward the idea that whatever council emerged from the ashes of the old one would use the proportional voting system, STV  to provide a council that better reflected the views of the electorate it was to represent. Despite it being my personal favourite drum to beat it wasn't really part of the ongoing Unitary debate. There was a rigorous debate after the public speakers about the motion and compelling arguments made on both sides.

The first argument in favour of the motion was based on the fact that considering what was being proposed was billed as "the most important decision in the town's recent history" the townspeople should at least be consulted on what they thought was best and informed of the potential options. I don't think that that is a particularly big ask.

Secondly, the demographics of Northampton is so different to that of its surrounding area it makes sense to administer services that are bespoke for that population. Whilst most of Northants is rural, there are areas of town which are densely populated and deprived and would benefit from services which are tailored for that. Having to provide contracts that need to provide for two different population priorities can result in nobody being happy. In an effort to balance the books (perhaps after years of underfunding) will it fall on Town assets to be sold to pay for the shortfall?

Thirdly, I wonder what the rural areas think of having to be part of a council where >60% of the councillors will represent urban areas and priorities. Will their priorities be drowned out by the Tyranny of the majority? Will they want to subsidise more resource intense urban households who, I'm told, cost more per head?

Lastly, and which, unfortunately in my opinion, was the argument most posited by those in favour of the motion is a philosophical reason; somewhat akin to some of the arguments made in the Brexit referendum. Who are we? What is our shared identity? What do we call ourselves? We're Northamptonians, not West Northamptonshirians so should be in charge of our own destiny. Localism is about having decisions made as close to the population being affected as possible and would an large arbitrary boundary, drawn for fiscal reasons, give us a sense of shared vision? The reason I feel this is the weakest of the 4 main arguments is I think most people don't care who collects their bins and derive their local and civic pride by other means. Sporting teams or community groups for example.

The arguments against the motion were also interesting and worth looking at. In my mind the most compelling argument against wasn't given by a councillor, but by a fellow public speaker. Namely that as the largest population centre in the county we had responsibility to provide opportunities and services within the town for those in the surrounding areas as we are linked by geography and many people in rural areas visit or work in the town and may have shared interests.

Another public speaker pointed  out that with a larger unitary, projects and services could be purchased at scale with the ability to get better deals due to bigger purchasing power. They also pointed out that a wider area would mean joint infrastructure could be planned more fairly in a more joined up manner, avoiding a situation where one rural council builds houses on the edge of town and then don't have to deal with the services as much.

Of course the biggest reason to vote against the motion was financial.

It was true that the 3 unitary option, whilst being fiscally viable, would not clear the black hole in the budget as quickly as the other models. It would need it's own separate executive structure and employees and these would cost money. The number £750/household/year increase in council tax was put forward by the councillor in charge of finances, as the cost of the 3 unitary model.

So, despite having helped propose the motion in the first place, it fell, by the votes of the majority Conservative administration. One could argue they changed their minds by the robust evidence produced, or that their party was also in charge of the government department which backed 2 unitaries. The cynics in the audience suggested that a larger semi rural council will more likely deliver a Conservative administration due to the location of the safe seats. Whatever the reason, all 22 councillors voted against the motion, which essentially made the meeting pointless - there will be no public consultation and we'll move to 2 unitaries in 2020.

It was a very interesting experience and it showed a political party machine in action. The only message you will hear in chorus from Conservative Councillors today is "It'll cost £750 a year for your idea". It's painted as the sensible and pragmatic way forward and it is an extremely persuasive message. The reason I think it is disingenuous is because it has no comparator.  It's just a number, a big one, and that is definitely what it will cost. There's no mention of the cost of the remaining proposal. With 8 years of cuts to local government funding, with nationally low council tax bills, with essentially a bankrupt council, surely council tax will HAVE to up under any circumstance. Are they saying under their proposal council tax won't go up at all?

I would like to know how this £750 number was derived, what the comparative number is for the 2 unitary solution and is there any way the books can be balanced without a council tax rise? I smell an FOI request.

*exhales* There is the rather long story of my first council meeting. I learnt a lot and saw a lot, but mostly I re-learnt a lesson I should know by now. Money Talks.

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