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Ron Simpson: Are our councils too big for our small towns?

Uppingham Town Hall ENGEMN00120130719134738
Uppingham Town Hall ENGEMN00120130719134738

On May 7th this year a new Government, as well as new town and county councils, will be elected. The new bodies will each face their own set of challenges but one issue confronting Uppingham Town Council will be its sheer size as a decision making body. Many believe it is too big for a town our size.

In democratically elected organisations such as the county council, there is an argument to suggest that each neighbourhood of the county should be adequately represented, but what is a constructive number? Where a town is divided into electoral wards, as in Oakham, it is understandable that many think each should have an elected representative. But does having wards lead to more effective governance and decision making? I suspect not. It is the skill set of individual councillors working as a team that will produce effective decision making. Unfortunately the ballot box does not always facilitate a competency based choice.

Here in Uppingham we have only one electoral area, Beaumont Chase and Uppingham. One would like to think that every four years the community would be electing an effective team to govern the town and orchestrate our community’s voice at county level. Not a bit of it. Historically, for the County Council, Uppingham has elected a divided tripartite of differing politics. As a consequence it can be argued that the town has suffered. Would it be better to have only one representative? Perhaps, if the representational model was the same elsewhere in the county. Note, however, research suggests that three is a good number, provided they work as a team. Interestingly, the devolved decision making of ‘ward members’, for example on the case for the yellow soft topped path that now winds its way north toward Preston, appears not to be the subject of public scrutiny prior to implementation. Hence the community cannot witness whether or not our team is acting as one.

At town council level the community, last time, elected 15 councillors from 17 candidates. An excellent outcome! However, despite colleagues’ best efforts, it is becoming increasingly difficult to sustain the position. The truth is that research suggests that, in most circumstances, 15 people to effectively govern a small town like Uppingham is far too many. The new council after May would therefore benefit from a review of its size and structure.

In the interim, Uppingham Town Council and its partners are investigating the possibility of more devolved powers for the town mayor and small teams of councillors; perhaps empowering portfolio holders as happens at county council level. Such moves could be incorporated in the next steps toward localism after the general election.

It is little understood that many of the Dickensian practices displayed by parish councils are there because of totally outdated legislation. The use of dual signature cheques for payments rather than BACS has been a classic example only now being addressed. Most frustrating is the inability of the elected town mayor or parish chairman to make urgent, but often minor, policy decisions on behalf of the council. Here we have much to learn from the French.

It is clear that Government would like to see parishes embrace localism and do more. While calling for more powers, councils such as Uppingham Town Council need to continue their good work and seek to be ever more effective. A reduction in size to seven or nine councillors would strengthen the potential for greater teamwork, thinking outside the box and sensible decision making.

wSo what do we need from the community as the next election approaches? The answer is possibly six community minded and competent folk who would be willing to stand for election and perhaps help make decisions which may put them off the council some time later. In business we call them change agents. Is anyone up for the job?

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