Councils need to concentrate more on what residents want

Georgie at sound city Ipswich in St Stephens Church, Saturday 3 october 2021

Councils must do more than talk about process - they have to work on projects that people want like St Stephens Church in Ipswich. - Credit: Timothy Bradford

As someone who has been covering politics, and especially local government, for decades, it feels a bit odd to write this. But much of what seems to obsess councillors and those of us covering their actions is totally irrelevant to most local residents.

At this time of the year councillors are running around, puffing out their chests and bragging to the world that they have kept their council tax increase 1% below the maximum permitted by government as if they have discovered a cure for cancer or a safe method of nuclear fusion that can power the world for ever!

What's the point? And why do so many observers fall into the trap of thinking this is important when in actual fact it's a tiny fraction of most families' budget.

The most common council tax band in Suffolk is Band B. The actual amount people pay for that varies from district to district, but the average bill this year is about £1,500 once all authorities are taken into account.

Once all the elements of this are considered: county - district/borough, police and crime commissioner, and (in most of Suffolk) parishes/towns - the total rise will be about 3%. That's about £45 a year or 86p a week.

I know there are some people who struggle for every penny. I know some will disagree with me on this. But for the vast majority of people in Suffolk £45 a year or 86p a week is neither here nor there.

Especially when set against the hundreds or even thousands of pounds extra we are going to have to pay for power and fuel.

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And yet local councillors are wasting inordinate amounts of time worrying about council tax while doing little to help residents facing a power apocalypse.

It really does feel like a house-proud resident worrying about a speck of dirt on the living room wall while ignoring the unexploded bomb in a crater in the front garden.

Then we come to the government's "levelling up" agenda which appears to be all wrapped up with a new call for local devolution.

When devolution was about creating a strong regional identity for East Anglia with powers stretching from Southend to Kings Lynn, there was some point to this. But I can't understand the point of a load of bureaucracy and naval-gazing if there will be no changes to the geographical boundary.

If the government feels the county council should have more say in local health delivery or should take back responsibility for the police (which it had until about 25 years ago) then get on and do it - we don't need a new democratic structure imposed on what we already have.

What worries me is that endless talk about process results in very little actually happening - it's like the world of Sir Humphrey Appleby when inertia becomes an object in itself and ordinary voters feel totally disengaged with the political process.

Because there are things that local authorities can make a real difference with.

In Ipswich the borough is working with Out Loud Music to create a really exciting small/medium-sized venue in St Stephen's Church. That should help revive Arras Square.

Suffolk County Council has worked with local MP Dan Poulter and developers to install a couple of roundabouts on the A140 near Eye making that section of the road much safer.

The new roundabout on the A140 near Eye is now open

The new roundabout on the A140 near Eye is now open - Credit: Charlotte Bond

And there have been measures over the last two years that have helped ease the effects of Covid and lockdowns.

These are the kind of measures that really matter to residents - not interminable discussions about 86p a week or lots of visits to Whitehall to sit with ministers discussing different ways of doing exactly the same jobs for the same group of people.

This week's statement from Government about Levelling Up showed quite clearly that the East of England doesn't feature on their radar for that.

The junior minister they sent to the Levelling Up debate in Westminster Hall did nothing to convince anyone that the government saw this region as a priority for its attention (except as a gateway to other parts of the country).

So for all these reasons, I really question the point of any discussions about how you deliver services - just get on do what the people want you to do.