Friday, 13 September 2013

Some thoughts on local government, Penzance Town Council and next years budget

Five months ago! going into the elections I prepared a great deal, I spent a good amount of time preparing how I would canvass, what I would say to electors and what I wanted to do in office. I thought at the time that I had a good grasp of what local government does and the roles, responsibilities and indeed limitations of being a councilor. I had the benefit of being friendly with a number of town councilors and Cornwall councilors some Mebyon Kernow and some not. Despite this, becoming a councilor, attending meetings, the phone calls, chats, emails, not to mention meetings has been an eye opener.

One of the things that concerned me about Penzance Town council was that not a lot of people knows what it does and I am sure this is true of all local government not peculiar to here. It's something I'd like to change (or more modestly play a part in changing on this blog.) There are misconceptions, about what the council can do and can't do and which decisions stem from here. I've recently been reading the National Association of Local Council's Good Councillor Guide (here's the pdf link if you're so inclined). It provides a useful definition of the duties of 'first tier authorities' (Town and parish councils):

Depending on your viewpoint a local council does not have to do a great deal or has a lot of flexibility to be creative. In other words a council is free to set up its own priorities. There a lot of misconceptions about what Penzance Town Council and other first tier authorities do. Unfortunately lots of things are things people would like to see change in the town, but are provided or decided by other bodies. The high cost of parking, the high cost of business rates are two prime examples, but not in the remit of PZTC. Although it must be noted that the cheapest car park in Penzance is the town council's with a rate of £1.90 per day (see here for that car park off Alverton road). 

I digress there are lots of important things that happen in the town, that are outside the jurisdiction of the town council. Highways, waste collections and litter picking, to name but three, important things not decided by the town council. Despite the rhetoric of 'localism' and the reforms of local government, first tier authorities lack the power, influence and crucially budgets to heavily influence their areas. So I think in a sense what I have learnt about being a Penzance town councilor is that there is a lot of flexibility for the council to be creative and to provide services. Obviously within the limits of a relatively small budget and not a great deal of power and influence.

At the moment the council is currently going into the budget setting stage and debates are starting and arguments are being formed, in the coming months it will be decided what the council spends money on next year, what services we choose to provide and to what level,  what things perhaps might be cut or reduced etc etc. Over arching this the massive variables over what Cornwall Council will pull out of funding as they beat their steady retreat eastwards and what we as a council will choose -and can afford- to take over. 

At the moment the town council operates under the budget of the last council and within the constraints of that budget and its priorities. It remains to be seen what the new council wants as its priorities. In May when I was elected there were also 7 other new councilors elected, leaving 12 from the last administration. In terms of composition there are 2 Mebyon Kernow, 2 Green, 2 Labour, 2 Liberal Democrat, 2 Future for Penzance and the remaining 10 Independent (well officially). There is no clear majority group, a lot of new councilors, so will there be consensus? Underpinning this is the precept, currently the town council gets about 5% of a resident's council tax bill. The bottom line is and perhaps ones of the most important decisions is do we raise our income through council tax? or do we freeze it? How much will providing good quality services take precedence over political point scoring. 

I appreciate this blogpost rambles a lot, so credit for sticking with it, or scrolling through this far ; ). The point I was trying to make is that there is a lot Penzance Town Council can't do, we can't unfortunately reduce parking rates or the town centre's business rates there are a lot of constraints. Looking on the positive side there is a a lot of room to be flexible, this means the council can fund all sorts of things. But it also means these things can be cut at the whim of councilors. What I am not clear at the moment is what will happen in the future but I will keep this blog posted with what occours and why I voted one way or another. To outline my position, I do think we should provide public services, subsidised by the tax payer for the good of the area. I don't think we should force austerity on to the council for the sake of it. I anticipate I will be at loggerheads with some other councilors for holding these views... 

Any thoughts or comments on the town council, the budget and what the town council spends money on, don't hesitate to get into contact with me, all details here