After eight years, I still haven't memorised this list from the Council Chamber

After eight years, I still haven’t memorised this list from the Council Chamber

Those of you in Colchester likely already know this, but let’s make it official: I won’t be standing for re-election to Colchester Borough Council this year, so my eight years on the Council will be coming to an end in May.

It’s been an interesting and enjoyable time, but everything has to come to an end sometime, and it seems that this is the time for me and the Council Chamber to part ways. There have been various machinations going on behind the scenes and the stress from that, plus the pressure of just being a councillor (let alone the extra roles) has just been mounting over time to the point where the negatives now far outweigh the positives. It’s still enjoyable in parts, but the idea of going through the pressure of another election campaign, when I’m not sure I’d enjoy the reward – and then have to go through the whole thing again next year – isn’t appealing to me.

I can remember being told by certain people that there was no chance of me winning the first time around, because Castle ward was about to be subsumed beneath a Green wave, and then in 2011, there was no chance I’d get re-elected because of the coalition. So, just having had eight years on the Council has beaten a lot of people’s expectations, and having most of them where we’ve been leading the council and over half of them where I’ve been a member of the Cabinet wasn’t something I was expecting when I first agreed to stand.

Trust me, getting elected as a councillor right before the global economy goes into a tailspin, the country dives into a recession and austerity becomes the ruling dogma is a surefire recipe for living in interesting times. The last few years has been dominated by talking about cuts and savings and efficiencies, while laughing bitterly at anyone imagining local government is somehow profligate. There isn’t a light at the end of the tunnel, either. The party manifestos for the next Parliament all promise some mix of tax cuts, deficit eradication, further austerity and certain services protected from cuts, all of which mean local government is going to take another hammering over the next five years.

But what about localism, I hear you ask? Don’t you have all sorts of new powers to do things your way? Pause to hear a legion of councillors laughing sadly at that. Localism sounds good, especially when put through the party political spin machine, but in practice it just means we get to locally decide how much we agree with Eric Pickles on something – total or absolute. For instance, the old centrally imposed housing targets have been removed, which sounds good, but the evidence base on which councils have to decide their housing targets haven’t, so it’s a case of no longer being told from the centre that the answer is 10, but instead being give two fives and told to go away and add them up locally, and you’ll be entirely responsible for the result. After a while being caught between voters’ expectations of what the Council can do, what it can actually do, and Whitehall’s continued belief that we should just be local delivery arms for the Government can get pretty tiring.

I’m reminded of what Tony Benn said when he left the House of Commons, that now he’d have more time for politics. One of the problems of being involved in the day-to-day politics of being a councillor is that you get swamped by the process and forget the wider issues. There’s a tendency to let everything become a process story, and I think that goes some way to explaining why a lot of politicians are suckered by the cult of managerialism – you can feel that the important thing is the sheer action making of decisions, rather than what decisions actually are. One thing about doing my Masters degree has been that it’s given me the space, time and context to think about politics on a much wider scale: I like talking about big ideas and ideologies, and not being involved so much in the day-to-day of being a councillor will give me the opportunity to do that.

What this means, of course, is the coming election campaign will be the first one in about a decade that I’ve not had heavy involvement in, which gives me more time to work on my dissertation – and I’ll likely bore you with more details of that after May 7th – but also to blog about the election, and hopefully find something interesting to say. There’s still a lot to discuss politically, even if the campaign itself is likely to be little more than game playing and process stories.

I’ve still got a month left on the Council, so it’s probably a bit early for epitaphs, but it’s been fun and I’d still recommend it to people who want to have some impact on their community, even if the Council’s not quite the grand seat of power it used to be. To those who remain, and those who come after me, I can only echo the words of someone much older and wiser than me:

One day, I may come back. Yes, I may come back. Until then, there must be no regrets, no tears, no anxieties. Just go forward in all your beliefs and prove to me that I am not mistaken in mine.

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As the Gazette is reporting it, it must be official – I’m the new leader of the Liberal Democrat group on Colchester Borough Council.

First, the thanks – thanks to the group for backing me and selecting me as their leader, and thanks to my predecessor as group leader, Councillor Paul Smith, for the work he did during his time in the role. It’s a big role to take on, and I’m glad that they see me as the best person to do the job and take the group forward.

As leader, I want to change and improve the way we communicate with the people of Colchester. The election results from last week – and especially the low turnouts – are a message to all politicians of all parties that we need to do much better at listening to people. This means us getting out on the doorstep even more than we do now, but also expanding the way we use other methods of communications. I’ll be continuing to use this blog, my existing Twitter accounts and my Facebook page, but look out for more of that coming along over the coming months.

This isn’t about us coming out to tell you how wonderful we are, but about finding out what needs fixing in your street or in your neighbourhood, and how you want to see the borough developing in the next five, ten or twenty years. I want to show that our liberal values and principles can deliver the Colchester that people want to see, that we’ve got a vision for the future of the borough that people share.

Hopefully, I’ll have many more posts on these themes over the next few months, looking for your views on various areas, but if you’ve got any questions for me, then ask them here, on twitter or facebook, or by email, and I’ll answer them as best I can. And if you feel like coming along on the journey with me, you can always join us…

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About a year ago, I wrote a post about how Councils were having to choose between two new structures for organising themselves, both of which required a huge concentration of power into the hands of one individual – either a ‘strong leader’ or an elected Mayor.

However, after the General Election and with the Labour Government being replaced with the Coalition, it looked like this would be something that would quickly fall by the wayside, especially with the statement in the Programme for Government which stated that while the twelve largest cities would have the opportunity to decide on whether they wanted elected mayors, for other Councils there was this:

We will give councils a general power of competence

We will allow councils to return to the committee system, should they wish to.

So, no need to carry on with the old process and a chance for Councils to determine for themselves what the best way of running their affairs would be. Sounds great, until someone realised that they hadn’t got rid of the old legislation requiring Councils to go through the changes, and so that would stay in place until the Localism Bill finally made its way through Parliament. Yes, we have to change systems in 2011, and then change them again in 2012, no doubt all in the name of efficiency.

But that’s not what I really want to write about today. As the local press have reported, we’re now in the process of deciding which of the two options we want (pdf file) – strong leader or elected mayor. While I still remain somewhat ambivalent about the choice being offered in themselves – it’s somewhat akin to being asked whether you want to be thrown out of a plane or out of a helicopter – I think that the elected Mayor option should be strongly opposed and rejected.

This isn’t because I’ve become a fervent supporter of the strong leader system, but because that option is the one that’s easiest to amend in the future when we have the power to do so. I’m opposed to systems where power is concentrated in individuals and I think the best Council structure would be one where power is dispersed back to committees, area panels and the like rather than concentrated upwards. It’s much easier to switch to something entirely new from the strong leader situation than it would be if we had an elected Mayor in place – you’re more likely to get a leader who’ll give up their powers than a Mayor who’ll happily abolish their entire existence.

Of course, that’s at the heart of my opposition to elected Mayors – this idea that concentrating all the power of the Council into one person is somehow a good thing and will solve all problems. (It’s also very similar to the arguments Mussolini and the Fascists used in the 1920s and have been used by anti-democrats ever since – democracy and consensus have failed, only a strongman leader can solve these problems) No matter what living in an elected dictatorship might have taught us, democracy isn’t just about voting every once in a while and then forgetting about it. It’s a system of checks and balances that should be there to prevent, not encourage, the exercise of arbitrary power by anyone. The way the Mayoral system is established in Britain doesn’t allow for this – the Council is reduced to little more than a rubber stamp (just look at how little power the GLA has to check the Mayor of London) and huge chunks of what the Council does can be determined solely by Mayoral fiat.

‘But that’s what we want!’ Some people say. ‘Let the Mayor smash through red tape, bureaucracy, political correctness, council jobsworths and whatever other nonsense the Daily Mail says is blighting the country!’ What they fail to realise they’re assuming in this is that they’ll get a Mayor who agrees with them. I know we all like to assume that the majority agree with us, no matter how silent they might be when asked, but just imagine what someone you fundamentally disagree with could do with that unchecked power over your Borough. Concentrating power into a single post might increase the reward for winning an election, but there’s always that matching risk someone you don’t like will get all that power – all it takes is one good election campaign, one last minute scandal as people go to vote, one slip up in an interview or at a hustings and suddenly someone you never wanted running your life has a huge say over it.

I’m not claiming that the alternatives are perfect political systems for local government, but they do have the advantage of diffusing power, of ensuring everyone has the chance to have their say, not just the coterie who get to surround the winning Mayoral candidate, and there’s a recognition that individuals are fallible. Checks and balances may not lead to the supposedly dynamic and efficient government that seems to be perennially just one reform away from us, but they do keep the arbitrary abuse of power away.

What a monument of human smallness is this idea of the philosopher king. What a contrast between it and the simplicity of humaneness of Socrates, who warned the statesmen against the danger of being dazzled by his own power, excellence, and wisdom, and who tried to teach him what matters most — that we are all frail human beings.

Karl Popper, The Open Society And Its Enemies

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Budgeting

We’re currently having lots of meetings talking about Colchester Council’s budget for next year. Because of the economic situation and the likely severe drop in money we get from the Government – despite the fact we still send them far more of the business rates we collect for them than we get in return – there are likely to be cuts in several areas, so we want to know which areas are of the most importance to people in Colchester.

So, to have your say on which areas you think are most and least important – and to suggest any other savings or income ideas for the Council you might have – visit www.colchester.gov.uk/yourcolchester and have your say. You can also take part in the process by following @YourColchester on Twitter.

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