Friday, 17 June 2011

A Job for the Town Council?

If you do not live in County Durham, you may not find this rant particularly relevant, and you may want to move onto other posts of more general significance.

HOWEVER, I do feel that this situation exemplifies a more general malaise in local government in recent years whereby - whenever there is a new initiative - town councils (in our case perfectly suitable for task) are ignored and a new, usually very expensive, standalone organisation is created from new to administer the function. It would have been so much cheaper, easier and faster simply to devolve the function to the Town Council. But, either by design or incompetence, there seems to be an intention nowadays to bypass the existing democractically-elected parish-level councils.

When County Durham becam a Unitary Authority, it set up 14 'Area Action Partnerships' to 'work with local communities and key Partners to make sure local services meet local needs'.

After a year, County Council Scrutiny asked the public what we thought of the AAPs, and this was my answer:

I have five reservations about the AAPs.

1. Firstly, they are unelected. Although they include Councillors, ALL members on the AAP are unelected. Therefore, despite a formal process of selection of which I am aware, the underlying truth is that the members of the AAP are largely self-selected, and the danger is that sooner or later the AAPs will come to consist of people who do NOT represent the public, but who are there because they have a personal or corporate vested interest. Whether this is true of the people who are currently on the AAPs is irrelevant (actually, the people on GAMP are good people). The problem is that it is the membership PROCESS which is flawed. And where there are perfectly acceptable democratically-elected alternatives (e.g. Great Aycliffe Town Council and Middridge Parish Council) I cannot see why it was/is necessary to have the undemocratic AAP.

2. I am horrified that, last year, a £250,000 budget carried a £100,000 (40%) administration element. If the County Council had given a ring-fenced sum to a joint meeting of GATC and MPC, we could have applied that funding to any defined set of projects/areas with no admin costs whatsoever. One cannot help suspecting that the AAPs were set up as much to provide administrative jobs at DCC as to fund community projects.

3. I question the project-funding element of the AAP’s function altogether. Funding of what is an ever tighter budget at DCC is determined after a strict and comprehensive budgeting process. Yet then – erroneously in my opinion – the County Council hands out £3.5 million to the AAPs to spend in a random manner as they choose. What evidence is there that this spending matches County priorities … or negates them? To what scrutiny processes is this spending subject? The sum of £150,000 is paltry in terms of its ability to affect anything of substance, and the AAPs appear simply as bodies set up to keep local people entertained by letting them throw a little money around in their local area. To the extent that this is true, it is outrageous in a time of painful cuts in front-line services. And if it is not true, and that money is judged essential to spend on community-wished projects, why was it thought necessary to set up a separate body to undertake this – why did you not just give the money to GATC and MPC, along (if you wish) with a set of rules about the consultation/validation processes that had to accompany the grants? Your money would have been spent at least as validly and much more efficiently.

4. The AAPs were set up to form a link between County Council and Parish-level politics, as an assurance to those who were worried that local government would become too ‘distant’ when the District Councils were abolished. I see no evidence at all that the AAPs have made any contribution whatsoever to drawing County Council politics down to Parish level. If it argued that it has better involved local people in community issues (which is a clear aspect of your questionnaire), then I think you will incur the wrath of GATC, which has several well-developed and much more effective ways of involving the local community in decision-making. And if you argue that the AAP addresses County issues, I would question the extent to which that has been effective, or even true.

5. One element where there has been some movement on this – alarmingly, in my opinion – has been that the County Council has occasionally used the AAP system as its ‘consultees’ on various issues INSTEAD OF attending GATC (the County Plan is a case in point). And – whereas one might argue that, if the AAP exists, there is nothing to be lost in consulting this self-selected, potentially-partial body – when this is seen as an acceptable alternative to consulting the democratically-elected body of Councillors on GATC, then I am horrified.


The membership of GAMP are fine, willing community volunteers, exemplars of the Big Society, and I have only praise for their efforts and their intentions. But I cannot see a single thing that GAMP does which could not be done better, cheaper, more efficiently, faster, and more democratically by a partnership body drawn up by GATC and MPC.

Where an area has vibrant parish/town councils (such as Great Aycliffe/Middridge), the AAPs need abolishing, their functions need devolving to the parish/town councils, and instead an EFFECTIVE system of political cooperation, consultation and involvement needs developing between the County Council and the town/parish councils which will MEANINGFULY meet the promises made by the County Council to parish councils.

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