Cllr Paul Watkins
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Evolution of Local Government
Current challenges facing local government and a possible outcome were described by Councillor Paul Watkins, Leader of Dover District Council, when he spoke to members of the Rotary Club of Dover on 6th April 2017. The consequences on local government of central government’s decisions to reduce the rate support grant to local authorities and its eventual complete removal coupled with the capping of Council Tax at 2% meant both staff and services had been reduced. Local authorities in East Kent were in discussions about the future structure of local government and the delivery of the services and duties imposed on it by central government. Initially members of five local authorities, Dover, Shepway, Thanet, Ashford and Canterbury had come together to map out the possibility of creating one economic entity for East Kent where at present there were duplicating features such as the five councils with varying number of councillors, five cabinets, and five Management Teams but where many of the services were already shared. A new regional authority, it was believed, would reduce overheads considerably but, said Paul, “the cost of democracy is not cheap”. Ashford dropped out of proposals under consideration but reserved the right to opt back in if a unitary authority was a likely end result. On March 22nd the four remaining authorities each met to decide on a consultation process with the public on the ideas being formulated but Shepway voted out for various reasons so the project was stalled for the moment.
Paul indicated things could not be left as they are and that change was inevitable. An ‘elephant in the room’ was the existence of another tier of local government currently above the District Council level namely Kent County Council with which there were service delivery issues highlighted specifically in such areas of activity as Highways and Waste. Duplication of activity could be overcome if all powers, save for those relating to strategic issues, were devolved to new unitary authorities covering the County. Such a development would transform practical issues relating to the management and financing of authorities by enabling the provision and delivery of services from one source. Paul envisaged three unitary authorities for Kent taking functions from Kent County Council and enabling for East Kent an authority for an economic area with its own industrial, educational, retail, health and community profile which would represent more powerfully and economically the interests of the communities within its boundaries. There could be the prospect of further devolving of powers to area boards where previous districts existed. All proposals were intended to safeguard a local economic identity and rationalise local government for service in the C21 for the benefit of communities. Progress in the direction of travel, indicated by Paul, was already being made in Buckinghamshire and Dorset.
“The process” said Paul “is on hold but not dead”. It was important, he said, that local government created a ‘methodology of survival’ with the consent of the people rather than try to muddle on with present structures or having a solution imposed on local government from above.
Introduced by Rotarian Terry Sutton a vote of thanks was proposed by Past President Jeremy Barford.