Thinking over the rainbow

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Busy times for the Town Council

Inspired by many discussions with the late Keith Taylor, I stood and was elected as a Rye Town councillor in May 2011 as part of the Campaign for a Democratic Rye. Our focus was the attempt to devolve more powers to the Rye Town Council.

Until the reorganisation of 1974, a borough council had governed most aspects of Rye’s local government on its own. After 1974 Rye lost all its meaningful powers, handing over planning and a majority of its property assets to what was the new Rother District Council.

1 Greater powers For Rye?

Following the 2011 election, it soon became clear that devolution was not a priority for Rother District Council. We proposed taking over the management of car parking, public lavatories and tourist information. In each case Rother put obstacles in our way and nothing was achieved. In effect, Rother wished to retain all revenue and devolve costs – which for the town made no sense at all.  It still remains the case that the District and the County Council appear to be unwilling to delegate to the local councils.

Also, back in 2011, Rye Town Council showed a very limited appetite for taking on more responsibilities or risks. To an outsider the Council could appear to be more concerned with costumes and correct procedures than actual governance and power. I am glad to say that things have since changed and the Town Council has taken positive action, for instance by appointing the Town Steward, helping to set up a Community Interest Company to run the allotments, and by setting aside funding for a business development manager (dependent on matched funding from the private sector).

2  And the larger picture? How efficient is local government?

Our efforts to bring about change in Rye have taken place during a period of cuts in government funding for Local Authorities. As a result the priority has been for them to cut costs. This has been achieved very largely by shedding employees and “out sourcing” their work to contractors. It is the length and terms of these contracts that often prevent the town and parish councils from developing their own local initiatives to deliver the same services – even though these local schemes could be cheaper and more effective.

Despite the reduction in funding and the substantial cuts in staff the bureaucracy remains large.  We still have in Sussex two County Councils (two police forces, two social security hierarchies, two local education authorities, and two general administrations), while in East Sussex alone we still have five district councils – a very expensive and unnecessary corporate structure.

3  A radical solution

My business training would lead me to much more radical solutions than those currently adopted. I can see no need for three layers (Town/Parish Council – District/Borough Council – County Council). Rye’s desire for more control over its destiny could be better achieved within the structure of a unitary authority that would replace East Sussex and all district and borough councils, and give enhanced implementation control to the community level. For example a planning office in Rye with dedicated staff for the Rye area, run as a subsidiary of the unitary authority. There would be similar offices in Battle and Bexhill/Hastings.

4  Neighbourhood Plan and local business rate reform

Being a member of the Planning Committee for four years brought home to me the critical importance of an effective planning function as the key component of economic development. The current planning system is not working as required – to be the driving force for housing and job creation. Recent cuts in Rother staff have made it worse.

There have been some positive changes. In 2011 the Localism Act introduced Neighbourhood Plans through which local communities can genuinely influence planning decisions. Rye Town Council is actively supporting the development of Rye’s Neighbourhood Plan with an effective management team of citizen members.

In addition Local Authorities are now able to retain more of their business rates to be spent locally, a real incentive for Rother to promote business growth.

5  A personal view

Rye Town Council is possessed of many good qualities. It has a hard working and competent Clerk who has helped Rye obtain Quality Status for the Parish Council. It believes decision making and processes should be clear and transparent, and it encourages public participation. This is in stark contrast to Rother which in my view is inherently secretive and undemocratic in its public meetings (a criticism also recently expressed in writing by a minister in Whitehall).

Rye councillors represent a wide cross section of the community and are independently minded, not party political. Again this is in contrast with Rother and East Sussex whose elitist cabinet system combined with tribal political affiliations results in a virtually autocratic control that stifles debate and marginalizes a ponderous scrutiny system.

The Town Council does wish to stimulate more economic development but the business community, through the Chamber of Commerce and Hotcats, has so far failed to effectively interact with them. Despite this the Council has shown it has the ability to make a valuable contribution to the economy through its ownership of the Rye Heritage Centre and by promoting Rye as a venue for weddings. It has the powers to engage in further commercial activity if it should wish to do so.

In practice I have to confess finding it hard to anticipate how Town Council opinion would evolve on individual issues, partly because predetermination rules discourage prior discussion. This can polarize debate and end up being very divisive. But perhaps that is the price of democracy!

In conclusion I was honoured to be elected by the people of Rye and was stimulated, if at times frustrated, by exposure to a “consensus” culture, so different to the corporate disciplines and market criteria in which I had previously worked. In particular I would single out the treatment of financial reserves and obtaining best value from assets including land and buildings.

Perhaps the secret would be to combine the best of both those worlds – but within a wholly reformed structure.

Mike Eve was a Rye Town Councillor from 2011 to 2015 Photo: Nick Taylor

Image Credits: Rye News Library .