Local Councils are being given increasing autonomy by central government and while this may be a good thing in principle it can only bring real benefit if a council conducts its affairs in an open, inclusive and transparent way. If it does, there is a real opportunity for local democracy to flourish and for communities to feel they have some control over their destiny.
Unfortunately I believe South Hams District Council is not serving the area’s best interests at the moment due to the lack of councillors that are willing and able to hold the Council to account. The result has been some fairly odd ideas being given serious consideration and considerable sums of your money being wasted on reports and studies. Some examples which should not have passed muster on their first parade are: the proposal to set up a so called Local Authority Trading Company, a private company, to run all the council’s services; the scheme that involved borrowing and investing £80 million in commercial property outside the South Hams; the ongoing “confidential” discussions to develop the Totnes car parks and other council property.
Also, the proposed merger with West Devon was not our Council’s finest hour. There were many obvious problems with the idea, not least of which was a likely 40% increase in your council tax. Yet, despite significant public concern, the Council voted in favour. Thankfully West Devon did not.
This is not how local democracy should work. Like most councils, South Hams District Council faces some serious financial challenges, with the reduction in funding from central government. To secure its future and the essential services it delivers it needs to draw on the goodwill of the communities it serves and build partnerships, and stop wasting money on looking for a ‘market’ solution.
Planning is one of the key activities of SHDC. Since the Localism Act came in planning authorities, like SHDC, are required to make a Statement of Community Involvement. There is one on its web site in which it makes six crucial commitments to: engage, inform, consult, involve, collaborate and empower. These are laudable goals but to achieve them councillors need to hold officers and the executive to account to ensure they are delivered. Sadly this is not happening.
The democratic process does not end once councillors are elected. It should just be the beginning. If elected, I would work hard to involve everyone in the Council’s policy and decision making and to make sure your voice is heard and taken account of. In that way we can direct the Council to have coherent plans that actually deliver genuinely affordable houses for local families, investment in local businesses and high streets, reduction in car parking charges and keeping our public toilets open and free to use. These are all achievable without selling the family silver and losing proper control of the delivery of key services.
We are very lucky to live in such a unique and beautiful area. It needs protection and it needs intelligent and thoughtful development. This can only happen through a transparent consultative democracy that involves Parish Councils as well as the myriad other voices from Village Hall committees, Residents Associations, the local WI and other organisations. Only through dialogue and transparent decision making will the Council be able to get it right.