What sort of Councils do we want in the future?
by Jan Cosgrove, Editor
The current pandemic has put all levels of our national and local institutions and authorities under unprecedented pressure in these recent months, but the way we govern our local democratic affairs has been under mounting pressure long before this. Not even starting with the 2008 Crash, but well before that, our Councils etc have struggled with more and more responsibilities but with central government less and less willing to pick up the tab.
Poll Tax and Son of Poll Tax (Council Tax) saw a move to put even more pressure on lower income groups with no move towards more progressive forms related to ability to pay. There is no sign of any party looking at this any time soon.
On the structure, there has been more activity.
The last major shake-up of local Government, the 1972 Local Government Act, which created Arun Council from April 1974, the main intent of the reform was to be to create Unitary Authorities to sweep away a two-level system of Shire Counties and District and Borough Councils, but maybe the mistake was to succumb to the howls from Shire-land which left a system where there was a choice to retain County/District models.
BOGNOR REGIS Urban District Council archives
Here, this saw West Sussex retained undertaking the major-spend services Education, Social Services and Highways. Old small districts disappeared, for example Bognor Regis Urban District Council (which covered also Felpham and Aldwick) and its Littlehampton counterparts, also taking in parts of Chichester Rural District (that included for example, Pagham and Bersted, replacing them with the larger Arun District Council. This undertakes the orher statutory services such as Housing, Environmental Health, Planning and Licencing. “Statutory” means those required by Acts of Parliament to be carried out.
Both levels also are able to provide “discretionary” services. that is not required by law.
In this area also is a third level, the parishes. Some of these are old, and some much newer. For example, Bognor Regis Town Council was created in 1985, Aldwick and Felpham Parish Councils also are more recent. There are six such urban parish councils covering Aldwick, Bersted, Bognor Regis Town (five wards Hatherleigh, Hotham, Marine, Orchard & Pevensey), Felpham. Middleton-on-Sea & Pagham. These Councils have discretionary powers only.
So, the total number of councils covering all or part of the Bognor Regis urban area of 63,000 residents is Eight.
Each has elected Councillors, some 6 County Councillors, 15 District Councillors and around 70 Parish Councillors. All are elected for 4 year terms, Parish and Arun in the one year, County 2 years between.
At County and Arun level, all are elected via contested ballots, political parties and groups put up candidates, there is a Polling Day. System is First Past the Post. At Parish there is a very different picture. Whilst at Bognor Town all 16 Town Councillors (Town is a larger Parish) have been voted for, same at Middleton, at Aldwick just 5 of the 13 have been voted for, the rest either were seats only contested by one person, or coopted, one ward has had a vacancy since the 2019 elections. At Bersted, Felpham and Pagham parish councils, none of their Councillors has been voted for in a contested election.
One might ask how healthy is this, especially if Councillors at all levels are able to make decisions which can result in residents being charged elements of council tax.
This fundamental issue is one thread of the One Bognor Survey now open, but it also looks at other important questions as we look forward.
That change is coming is clear from all parties at Westminster. Even if it had not been spurred on by the ‘Red Wall’ phenomenon of the last General Election, changes would be developing in the North, but since 1974, there has been gradual change with more and more Councils opting to either create now Unitaries to replace them or finding other ways of working together. Indeed, the Government has announced that the 4 Somerset councils (already unitaries) will be replaced by a Unitary Somerset Council, there have also been similar decisions re Cumbria and North Yorkshire. One factor in agreeing the new arrangements has been the linkage between the areas to be merged.
Here, in recent months West Sussex has been going through an appalling series of crises from a whopping deficit (£100m+) to its Children’s Services being trashed by inspection, it also now shares a Chief Executive with East Sussex, Hampshire had to be drafted in re the children’s services, and in this edition there is an article about swingeing cuts to Family Centres and other provision.
Arun’s path since 1974 also has hardly been one of unrequited affection, from this side of the River Arun at least. The myth is Littlehampton and Arundel get it all though many on that side also are stonily unimpressed …. Also it faces ongoing financial pressure in common with other councils nationwide.
In the early 1990s disaffection on various issues, not least the Regis Centre, led to 3 Out-of-Arun Parish Polls, one in Bognor Parish (20%+ turnout), Bersted (28%) and Felpham (33%), quite unprecedented and the response in all 3 was 8/9 out of 10 voters wanted Bognor to leave Arun. That result has been maintained in smaller private polls ever since, but the problem was no one picked up that there had to be a suggested replacement. So those polls have remained indications of ‘unrest’.
Has Arun responded to this, and how? That is another question ….
Also is there any appetite to go to new council structures? Well, one thing is sure, parish councillors will and do say there is no need, but they would say that …. Previous Herald polling suggested that there was a majority of residents in the Parishes to create one Urban Parish-level Council to replace the current six, and comments suggested also that people want a Voice for Bognor Regis, as they perceive it, stretching from Pagham in the west to Middleton/Elmer in the east, bounded by Bersted to the north etc. Another option is abolition of the parishes, one that the non-involvement of residents might suggest but that would mean those very few (70) would be even less involved in their communities’ governance at some level.
There are a considerable number of options, and the SURVEY sets out what seem to be the main ones. It’s very important to stress here that some of them probably have no prospect of being adopted, especially if they seek to create a smaller non-unitary council (splitting Arun as it is), and there are others with either cooperative schemes (such as that working between Adur and Worthing at this time) or various forms of unitary — one being the whole of County, another splitting County for example, Adur Arun and Worthing as a unitary, Chichester, Crawley, Mid-Sussex and Horsham as the other, or even East and West Sussex as one or sharing services.
Such changes bring initial cost but also longer term savings. They also mean better inter-council communication. The public is clearer about who does what.
Like others, I have my preferences and also expectation of what might not be acceptable if popular. But that is not the issue, the main thing is to kick off this debate now. Frankly, my dear, many not not give a damn ….