A nice man came recently from Durham County Council to talk to the Town Council about the performance of the local economy. He was quite enthusiastic about the way the county council was engaging with the local Area Action Partnership (AAP) – ‘GAMP’ (the Great Aycliffe and Middridge Partnership).
So I asked him could he think of any way that DCC could work with the Town Council! Given that GATC has a budget of more than £2.5million, compared to the AAP’s available funding of £150,000, you would have thought he would have been glad to do so. But no. The look on his face told me that, not only had he never thought of such a thing before, he really could not think of any reason to work with the Town Council at all.
Three days later, I went to the CDALC (County Durham Association of Local Councils) at County Hall. Proceedings were opened by a lovely woman who turned out to be Vice Chair of the County Council. After saying hello, much of her welcome turned out to be a eulogy about DCC’s excellent relationships with the AAPs. Given that she was welcoming a meeting of local councils, I could not help wondering whether she was simply being tactless, or whether she was trying to tell us something.
At that same meeting there was a stall advertising DCC’s consultation about Community Buildings. Surprised that I hadn’t heard about it (DCC always used to email me about new consultations), I went home to check it out. It turns out that they have stopped informing people of new consultations, moved them to a webpage in the bowels of their website, and started consulting instead through the AAPs. So there was no wonder I hadn’t heard.
And then, barely a couple of days later, I got the County Durham News, enthusing about the AAPs and announcing that a recent review and consultation about the AAPs had proved them ‘fit for purpose’.
A Misleading Report
Now the review – when I had eventually tracked it down through the labyrinth of the DCC website – actually proved nothing of the sort. You are welcome to read my more detailed analysis here.
• Most of the comment had come from consultation with DCC’s AAP officers, or with the AAP executives or boards.
• The response of the broader AAP membership of 5000+ was less than enthusiastic to say the least (of 279 who could be bothered to reply, a quarter rated the performance of AAPs in ‘engaging residents and service users’ as either fairly or very poor, and a third did not feel that their local AAP provided an ‘important point of contact for local people to discuss local public services’).
• And the few people who commented who were not directly connected to the AAPs were even more negative – in particular asking why the AAPs needed an administration levy of 40% of income, by what democratic right they exercised their functions, and why only one Town or Parish councillor was allowed on the AAP boards (all these questions were left unaddressed).
Instead – despite such a lukewarm and partial response – the review not only declared the AAPs ‘fit for purpose’, but resolved:
1. to use the AAPs for consultations in the future (which explains a lot)
2. to enhance the power of the AAP Board Chairs, who already attend the County Durham Partnership, to influence its decisions. (This alarmed me greatly, because even the larger local councils are not even asked to attend the CDP, never mind influence its decisions.)
3. to use the local Town and Parish Councils (TPCs) to publicise the AAPs’ ‘successes’ (which is just downright cheeky).
The Cuckoo in the Nest
Now to be fair, not all the responses in the review were hostile. Half-a-dozen smaller TPCs had praised the AAPs, and some were positively sycophantic. And I can understand why a small TPC, with a budget perhaps of as little as £20,000 – most of it earmarked for standing administration and revenue charges – would get excited when it was invited to take part in spending £150,000 on the local community!
But, for the Larger Local Councils – all of which will spend every month more than the entire AAP's year's budget, and which will probably spend more each year than the AAP on community projects – the AAPs are a threat and an outrage.
The AAPs are unelected, officer-led quangos. They are deeply compromised – almost a third of the board members are County Councillors, a third are interested ‘partner’ organisations, and the ‘independent members’ are not only self-proposed but are selected by the other 14! I can fully understand why the County council would prefer to consult such an organisation, rather than the established, independent, outspoken, critical larger TPCs – but I cannot understand how DCC can pretend that it is a valid ‘consultation’ to do so.
I have an awful suspicion that the AAPs, who were always the cuckoo in the nest, are just beginning to shuffle around and are starting to push out the TPCs.
Yet the TPCs are the democratically-elected representatives of the people – elected explicitly to be their voice.
The whole thing is most concerning. We are tut-tutting about non-elected technocrats replacing elected MPs in Italy … whilst our County Council is replacing the elected TPCs with corporatist quangos in our own backyard.
Conclusion and Recommendations
The pub in Aycliffe Village is called the North Briton, in memory of the publication by the 18th century politician John Wilkes, who once famously declared that ‘the power of the crown has increased, is increasing, and ought to be diminished’.
Perhaps we need to say the same of the AAPs?
The AAPs are not an organ of local democracy, and their development marks the replacement in local politics of democracy by corporatism, sponsored and implemented by the County Council.
Although there is a perceivable role for AAPs where parishes are small or non-existent, where people are represented at TPC level by a larger local council, there is no need for an AAP, whose functions the Larger Local Councils could do cheaper, better.
We need to insist:
1. that the County Council resumes conducting consultations through the TPCs (at least the Larger Local Councils)
2. that the Larger Local Councils should be given a place on the County Durham Partnership (and its thematic committees)
3. that the Consultative Councils Committee be revived as a point of contact between DCC and the TPCs.