- Posted by: Canterbury Labour
- Category: Latest News
You may think that there is something very odd about anyone who gets excited about local government. We’re a minority of people, quite clearly. Those who not only join a political party but then stand for election are an even smaller group. Those who are successfully elected to Council are a very tiny but privileged set: just 39 people from our District’s whole population.
When I moved to Canterbury 9 years ago, I had no intention of being one of them. But, in the first month here, I picked up the Gazette to find out what was happening locally. And I read the story about the Westgate Towers traffic scheme trial, which seemed crazy. So I went along to a public meeting, and then to a Council meeting. What I saw was a display of arrogance from the Tories which, frankly, enraged me.
I’d been a Labour activist for almost 30 years, and dropped that to concentrate on my career. But now I find myself leading the Labour Group of Councillors here. Fortunately, I have some relevant experience as well as the rage, including local government jobs in Aberdeen and Hull, a role in a charity in London, rising to managing director of a small international consultancy. It might not be an obvious political career, but here I am, thanks to the support of my nine Labour Council colleagues and the voters of Barton Ward.
You may ask what can a minority opposition Party really do to help the people of Canterbury?
Essentially, there are three things that are key: support and protect residents; try to influence and, where we can, change decisions for the better; and hold the Tory ruling group to account. That requires a delicate mix of criticising when we think the Tories have got things wrong, while trying to persuade them to see the merits of our ideas. It means putting forward viable alternatives, something which is not easy in a Council which has had so much of its budget cut while being so intent on making unwise major investments. Nonetheless, we can have an impact, as we did with the Climate Change Emergency and bringing forward the target date for a “zero-carbon Council” to 2030.
One thing that’s not helpful in this in is to demonise Tory councillors. I sincerely believe that every Councillor stands for election because they want to improve the lives of residents. However, we can’t hide from the fact that our views on how to achieve that are radically different. If I can crudely summarise the Tory perspective it is that private enterprise alone can solve most problems and that local and central government should interfere as little as possible and thus should have as small a role (and budget) as possible. Not only do I disagree strongly, but I think there is ample evidence to show this theory is wrong.
By contrast, Labour generally believes in applying a mixed solution. Certainly, allow the private sector to do things where it is clearly better – which may mean cheaper, or more innovative, or more flexible – but create a foundation through public, shared, provision of infrastructure and core services – like the NHS – which ensures equal opportunity for everyone. So far as local government is concerned, we believe that it has a crucial role in creating the conditions for small, local, businesses to grow. In particular, we support worker owned businesses and enterprise which keeps the money which residents spend within the District, rather than it being diverted to faceless corporations via tax havens.
As an example, look at the St George’s Street market. Whether the market should be enhanced or redesigned is an important issue, but in principle Labour don’t want to see something removed which is well used by residents, is predominantly an outlet for local traders and produce, and which generates footfall in the City. While we welcome upgrading the appearance of the street, the proposed design prevents market stalls being set up. We think you can have both a renewed street layout and a market, and that there should be genuine consultation, not just one design option which would rule out a market.
It’s that kind of issue which local Tories get badly wrong. They don’t listen to local people. In fact, they are going out of their way to avoid letting residents have a say. Abolishing the Area Forums, scrapping major working groups, and the proposed move to a Cabinet system are all ways of shutting down debate, silencing criticism, and creating a monopoly in decision making. That isn’t healthy for democracy, and it’s certainly no way to make good decisions.
If the Tories insist on going down this path and ignore suggestions made by us and others, then we will use every tool we can to resist. Their Leader, Cllr Fitter-Harding, says that he wants to cooperate with us, and I have no reason to disbelieve him. But we still have to offer sensible criticism and alternative solutions, as we have been doing. Where our proposals are rejected, as with our conviction that there should be a dedicated committee to look after the Housing service, we will be actively scrutinising the service. We must make sure we don’t have a repetition of the breaches of regulatory standards that occurred under East Kent Housing.
We also know that the Council is desperately short of money. How we spend what we do have is vitally important and we are critical where there is waste, while trying to find ways of improving income. When finances are as tight as they are here, spending millions of pounds in interest for borrowings to buy shopping centres and car parks which don’t make a good return is a criminal waste. The Tories, self-proclaimed entrepreneurs and business experts, have failed to be sound custodians of public money.
It may be ironically amusing when senior Tory Councillors bemoan the decisions of a Government run by their own Party. Yet from planning laws to local government finance the fact is that 11 years of Conservative rule has slashed the ability of local government to provide services which meet the challenges of our diverse and changing district. Tories bear responsibility for that – it’s their Government. So it is less amusing when our criticism is met by the claim that we are somehow “playing politics”. This is a nonsensical reaction. Not only are the people who are throwing this cheap jibe members of a political Party, but they have put forward proposals to change the system of decision making in Council, which is by definition a political process. Residents have a right to expect a rather more thoughtful engagement when fundamental issues are under discussion.
To summarise: our first priority is to do what people elected us to do: to help when they need advice in dealing with the Council. Whether that’s about housing, or benefits, or planning, or difficult neighbours, or missed waste collections, or fly-tipping, or any one of the many other things the Council does, we’re the first line of contact and the conduit to the people who actually solve the problems, the Council’s staff. That’s our main role and our main focus.
As Councillors, we want to see positive change, and we won’t hold back from making every effort to deliver that, for everyone.