Friday, 25 October 2013

Latest from Ben - Democratic Change in Ipswich

Herewith a message from Ben in it's entirety and my comments in response at the bottom!

Earlier this week I had a great meeting with an architect with red trousers who is now one of the most famous men in Bristol.  George Ferguson, a man few people in that great city would have heard of a few years ago, is now the directly elected mayor of Bristol - the first of a kind outside London.  He's quickly made a name for himself, crafting a bold vision for Bristol, exuding a passion and a belief in what the city can do to prosper in the future, and for being instantly recognizable for always wearing red trousers.  He has won plaudits from people of every political colour and none.

I admitted to him I am jealous of what he's able to do.  He provides what local government so singly fails to do in so many of our towns and cities: passion, breadth of vision and intelligence of leadership.  In part it is the man, of course, but it is also the position: putting power in the hands of one directly elected person, identifiable and accountable to the people.

Now, let me ask you three questions.  Do you know your councillor?  Do you know what they can and cannot do?  And when did you last vote in a local election?  Readers of the Ipswich Star will score well, I am sure, but if you asked that question across the population you would get some very low numbers, I am sure.  On the last point, elections, we know the figures: fewer than 1 in 4 people thought worth their while to vote in this year's elections.

Ask anyone in London who the mayor is and almost all will know: for that matter, ask most people in Britain - and, it seems, in China - and they know too.  Granted, London and Boris are special cases, but George Ferguson is getting to be very well known in Bristol - not just for those trousers but because of what is doing and plans to do.

Imagine the same in Ipswich, and what a directly elected mayor could do.  Not only would the position have power, they would be recognized by the people and more directly accountable for what they do or don't do.

Two problems get in the way.  First, we need to combine the councils that run Ipswich, and draw the boundaries of the town to reflect its actual area rather than the one that described how it was in Victorian times.

Secondly, it would require councillors to vote to give up power - and, as we know, turkeys seldom vote for Christmas.

That is why I am very pleased to see the Borough make a first step in the right direction.  One of its suggested savings is to reduce the number of ward councillors from three to two and stop the silliness of having elections every year and have them every four years instead.  People get fed up of constantly campaigning rather than doing - as do councillors, who should be working for the community rather than delivering leaflets.

I wholeheartedly support both these proposals.  And why not go a bit further and have just one councillor per ward - giving them greater profile and power amongst their constituents?  By giving them a bit more administrative support, I am sure they could deal with the extra work and costs would come down nonetheless.

And if we go that far, then it is a bit closer to having a directly elected mayor.

My response: I will leave the question of directly elected mayor because I haven't made my mind up about that!
On the question of reducing councillors. I have often said cutting from 3 to 2 is the way to go and would vote for this in a heartbeat, even if it meant I was the turkey at christmas! However going from 3 to 1 is just not viable.
I don't think many understand how much work is involved in being a councillor. It's obvious that Tory voters call up a Tory councillor and Labour start with a Labour councillor when they need help. If one person were to do all the case work, then they could kiss goodbye to any day job they have! In fact I might choose not to stand again if I were to have all the responsibility, even if I had an assistant. There is only so much an officer can do - it is the councillor who visits residents in the first instance, who knocks on door, who attends events, who reads all the reports for council meetings and I make no bones that it costs me financially because my business suffers. 
But not only that, if I felt I couldn't do council case work properly and thoroughly, then I'd rather not do it all and concentrate on other things.
What do you think?

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