When localism rules, who gets the parking fees and who cuts the grass?
In years to come, will Wiltshire Council still be able to keep the annual half a million pounds it makes from parking charges in Marlborough? If it does, what will the coalition government’s localism legislation really mean?
These points of principle were put by two Marlborough town councillors to Nick Hurd (pictured), Minister for Civil Society in the Cabinet Office, who was in Devizes on Friday evening to answer questions on the coalition government’s Big Society and localism policies.
Organised by Devizes constituency MP, Claire Perry, the meeting in the Corn Exchange attracted about a hundred people. They included representatives of many voluntary organisations and charities – both large and small.
Nick Hurd was unavoidably delayed by Parliamentary business, so Mrs Perry gave a ‘warm-up’ talk emphasising the element of individual responsibility in the policies – and arguing that many of the coalition’s policies reflect the underlying beliefs of the Big Society concept.
With the Chief Executive of Wiltshire Council, Andrew Kerr, sitting a couple of rows behind him, Marlborough town councillor Richard Pitts said they wanted to open a new tourist information centre for the town, but lacked the funds. This would replace the centre in George Lane car park closed by Kennet Council and the tourist information point closed this year as part of Wiltshire’s cuts to library services.
Pitts asked Hurd whether the town council could challenge the unitary council and take the parking fees for Marlborough council to use – for projects like the new tourist information centre. Mrs Perry intervened to say the parking charges subsidised bus transport in the county. Councillor Pitts saw no evidence of that.
In Nick Hurd’s view the localism legislation would give more “power to challenge” how services are delivered: “And the key to success will be popular support.”
But Marlborough town councillor Guy Loosmore told Hurd that from his reading of the legislation in any dispute between councils, Wiltshire Council would be the arbitrator: “The unitary council will simply protect its services.” How did that fit with localism?
Hurd admitted that the process of moving such powers down the chain of government to more local and community bodies had not been yet been finalised.
Both the Big Society and the idea of localism are policies in progress. Hurd explained that with the Big Society the government was not inventing something: “It’s about building on what’s there.”
But he warned the audience: “Do not underestimate the change that is coming.” He called the localism Bill “a very radical piece of legislation.” And those who criticise localism as “all words, are making a very big mistake.”
After the meeting, Andrew Kerr approached Guy Loosmore and indicated Wiltshire Council was interested in discussing with the town council what services it could take over. Richard Pitts says an example might be Marlborough council doing more grass cutting over a wider area – making better use of their existing equipment.