Any Cambs council merger should consider the two cities
WHEN I read the letter from Malcolm Smith (February 2) regarding the decision by Huntingdon Town Council to raise its Council Tax by 7.42 per cent, I was uncertain as to whether I wished to contribute to the debate. Reading the front page and editorial in your issue of February 9 has made that decision for me.
Even before the Government’s combined threat and bribery to district and county councils regarding the level of Council Tax we had Huntingdonshire District Council cutting its services because of the way it had managed its finances.
Two areas particularly struck me as they affected town and parish councils, an area in which I have had considerable practical experience for most of the last 40 years, both as a councillor and as a town clerk.
They were the town centre toilets and public open spaces. In the first, the district council said that, if the town councils did not take over the running costs of the toilets, they would be closed, implicitly blaming the town councils if this were to happen.
For the open spaces I seem to remember that the district council “offered” the towns and parishes the opportunity to contribute 50 per cent of the cost of running the opens spaces. In neither case can I recall anything about ownership being transferred.
Now we have both the district and county councils cutting their expenditure even more harshly, with much of the damage being done to front-line services and the voluntary sector.
We all know that this second tranche of pain is being imposed on local government by diktat from the coalition Government, with greater savings being demanded of local government than of less efficient central government services.
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I accept that the Government needs significantly to reduce both the annual deficit and the National Debt, but it seems to be blaming just the previous Labour Government for the financial mess rather than including the banks.
It then expects us to bear the cost, rather than tackle the banks and their bonuses. We are clearly the easy target.
Despite the rhetoric from the Prime Minister about the “Big Society”, the cuts being pushed through by district and county councils will wreak irreparable damage on those very organisations and groups that he expects to pick up the pieces after the whirlwind.
The demand by the Government for early cuts and the enthusiasm with which the Conservative groups on both county and district councils seem to have embraced them gives the lie to his pontification.
So we return to Malcolm Smith’s concerns that Huntingdon Town Council has increased its Council Tax while the county and district councils have not.
While I have sympathy for the dilemma faced by the town council, I believe that it is making a major and long-term mistake.
Unlike the principal councils it receives no central government funding. It even lost its share of the business rates when the old rating system was replaced by the Community Charge and then the Council Tax.
All its money is therefore raised from the people of the town. It is not been receiving the largesse, or bribe, from the Government to have no increase in its precept this coming year and cannot be penalised if it does impose an increase.
District and county councils know that, if they close toilets, youth clubs, libraries and community halls and reduce the maintenance of verges and open spaces, the councils of those towns and villages which value those services and have pride in their communities will feel pressure on them to fill the gap.
This has always been the case. District and county councils generally dismiss parish and town councils but suddenly realise that they exist when times are hard. By taking on these services the parish and town councils will be lumbered with them for ever, and those more senior councils that have reneged on their community responsibilities will see that the smaller councils are a pushover.
Town and parish councils should let the principal authorities take their decisions without expecting any safety net and only then consider the situation.
We also now have secret talks taking place between the leaders of three of the six district councils in Cambridgeshire, proposing a merger between those three authorities. Your reporter questioned the exclusion of South Cambridgeshire District Council, but there are two other district councils in Cambridgeshire: Cambridge and Peterborough City Councils.
If this is to be serious discussion about reorganisation, it should include all six district councils and the county council and not be a stitch-up sorted out between three men working behind closed doors.
If this merger is such a good idea, why did these wise men not come up with it before now? I believe that, while they felt that their own little empire was running well, they had no wish to co-operate with others. Now they are panicking.
Not only is this a knee-jerk reaction that will cause disruption and take years to work through, it is also a negation of local accountability and therefore is in direct conflict with the expressed desires of the Government for more localism – although many doubt that such expressions are really honestly meant.
Why do they not go all the way and propose their own abolition, with strategic services moved to the county council and local services to town and parish councils who can clearly work together?
It appears that these council leaders know the price of everything and the value of nothing. I hope that any councillor, particularly Liberal Democrat councillors, who truly value localism will speak up against this short-termism.
Editor’s note: There are actually now five district councils in Cambridgeshire, not six. Peterborough, which became a unitary authority in 1998, is no longer in Cambridgeshire.