Diary of a Sutton Councillor

Rewiring Public Services – Liberal Democrats show how it can work.

I’m at Conference and fresh out of the Local Government Association (LGA) fringe meeting on this issue where I heard Ruth Dombey, leader of Sutton Council make the case for devolving more powers to local authorities, and Don Foster MP, Under Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government remind us of the great initiatives to devolve powers to local people that have already been implemented thanks to Liberal Democrats in Government.

There is cross-party support within the LGA for greater autonomy for local authorities, however Don advised that there are some concerns about whether those powers would be used democratically by all councils.

It is entirely possible that different parties will place different interpretations on localism, and for the Liberal Democrats it is all about empowering local people to influence those decisions that impact on their lives. We see local authorities as the facilitators, bringing people and organisations together to determine what is right for their area, or for them.

In Sutton we are fortunate that we are in power and have the opportunity to demonstrate what localism means, and what this looks like in practice.

Neighbourhood Planning

We were one of the pathfinders for Neighbourhood Planning, a devolved power that we warmly embraced, as it provided a formal platform for a process that was already underway in Hackbridge, a process that was initiated entirely by resident demand!

Now that the principle has been established we have seen it as an opportunity to enable another community to shape and improve their area – Beddington. This is a heavily industrialised area, with conflicting demands between residents and businesses, but without a residents association to champion it. Here, we as a council brought people together with the idea of producing a neighbourhood plan, and encouraged them to form a residents association to carry that forward. This is now in place in Beddington and the plan area designation out for consultation.

Without the council’s intervention, only the wealthier, better organised areas would be getting support for neighbourhood plans. We are providing these other areas with basic support too, but we actively worked to encourage residents in a more deprived area, with greater potential for development, to grasp the fantastic opportunity this innovation brings.

Helping local people into work

Another example we have of our role as facilitators is in our Sutton Skills Match project, where we are bringing together businesses, JobCentrePlus, local training providers and schools so that we can work together to determine what skills local employers are looking to recruit, so that these organisations can offer the right type of skills training and advice to local residents, to enable them to take advantage of both the existing employment opportunities, and the new jobs being brought in by our successful inward investment drive.

On a similar theme local ward councillors took advantage of discussions about a planning application in their ward from a major engineering company to persuade them to get involved with local schools talking about careers in engineering.

Council homes for life

When we were given the freedom to change from tenancies for life to fixed term tenancies for social housing we went to our residents and social housing tenants and asked for their views. We listened to what they had to say, and discussed in depth the pros and cons of the many variations. And in the end we came out with a solution that we all felt comfortable with and had a rationale for: council homes would remain for life, but to make it work with limited housing stock we would restrict succession rights and only offer council homes to people who had no means to access other forms of housing. And this was based on the understanding that we are talking about people’s homes, and just because they are renting them from the council, it does not mean that we should feel free to disrupt their lives and move them about every time our supply & demand sums don’t work.

Capital spending decisions by local people

We devolve capital funds to local areas for local people to decide what public realm projects they want to implement. The ideas come from the community and are debated by the local community. Though this process we have seen outdoor gyms and barbecues put in our parks, high streets brightened up with flower displays, skate parks designed by local skateboarders, and war memorials repaired.

Resident satisfaction

Perhaps it is therefore no surprise that MORI polls us as having the highest resident satisfaction rating for a local authority in London.

And I know that other Liberal Democrat run local authorities will have similar stories to tell of empowering local communities to control their own destinies.

It is understandable that there may be a certain reticence among the powers that be to devolve further powers to local government, as we have all seen or heard of blatant abuses of power, of selfish greed in rotten boroughs where democracy is not the reality. Which just means that we have to shout louder about how life could be for local communities if they had more say about the services of their local council, and how, to really make that a reality, those councils need to be led by Liberal Democrats. Because we trust our residents with that power, and know that decisions are better when made together with our residents.

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September 15, 2013 - Posted by | Liberal Democrats, Opinion | , ,

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