Local Government Reform
Thursday 7th June
PUBLIC VOTES ON ISSUES THAT MATTER TO US
PUBLIC ACCESS TO COUNCIL ACCOUNTS
DIRECT ELECTIONS to the local Education, Health, Police and Traffic authorities, who are currently appointed. The public would then have some control over the decisions they took.
A LOCALLY ELECTED WATCHDOG to get sensible answers out of large organisations like BT and the Council.
Since the public cannot reasonably tell what the City or the County Council is responsible for, we shall deal with both Councils.
Your Council tax is going up 7%. If you paid £1,000 last year, you will pay an extra £70 this year. The Councils actually spend 3 times this amount, which they get from the rest of your taxes and what they can make out of charging the public more than they should where they can. For instance, the legal fees in the Islamic Centre case, parking (permit renewals are supposed to be free but can cost the unwary up to £190) and suppressing businesses which might compete with them (and give a better service? Council leaflet March 2000). Should the Councils be running what amount to monopoly businesses, anyway?
How do they spend it? Well, there’s £70,000 to bail out the bar of a social club with which they were connected (Donnington Bridge - see ‘Beer on theRates’ - Oxford Times), £3,000 to fund a newspaper not directly connected with Council business, an unspecified sum for sending someone to look at the rainforest in Brazil, £150,000 to ‘augment’ the ‘pension’ of the Chief Executive who chose to leave, resurfacing Banbury Road (is it 10 times in the last 7 years or 7 times in the last 10 - whatever it is, it’s an inefficient use of our money). And the Oxford Transport Strategy, which was imposed on us without a vote. And that’s just for starters.
Developers have to pay to be allowed to build (which they add to the price of the houses, of course). This is a form of blackmail or bribery. There might be a case for it if the money were used as the local people wished, instead of being used to make it more difficult for them to get about (Walton St/Walton Well Road obstructions and Waterside) and taking away facilities already there (bike shop near Lucy’s). The developers’ money is allocated in separate amounts for specific projects. Is this money actually used for the purpose for which it was given (where is the new Waterside playing field?) and is it used in the amounts specified or is it partially used and the ‘profit’ reallocated somewhere else we don’t know about?
We don’t want an ‘investigation’ by a whitewash committee - we want all the bills to be available for all to see. Not ‘interpreted’, not just totals - we want itemised bills posted on the Internet straightaway. In every ward, we have people with more knowledge on every subject than any individual on the Council staff. We can help.
For more effective Councillors
1. Two term limits (i.e. 8 years and then they have to do something else). After a time they begin to represent the Council staff - they become a little group on their own detached from the public. Hence the Council’s crossness over Councillor Power telling his constituents about the finances of their Council-run Old People’s home. His first loyalty is, and should be, to his people and not the Council.
2. Part time Councillors have their fingers in too many pies to get a grip on the plums. The full time unelected unsupervised staff have their own agenda, can concentrate and effectively run the show, sometimes intimidating individual Councillors and using them as a smokescreen. We need full time Councillors.
3. A pension good enough to make up for the interruption of a Councillor’s career.
4. A personal assistant each, chosen by them, with powers to look at any Council document they wish.
5. One member wards, so as to be as representative of the public in their area as possible.
6. They should live in the area they represent. We shouldn’t have major decisions for Marston (Oxford Times April 2001) made by the casting vote of a Councillor living elsewhere who will be personally unaffected by them. Particularly when the local people were massively against the decisions, in which the Council contravened the Planning Regulations.
For accountable staff.
The following should cease -
1. Instructing Councillors and the public as to what they may or may not discuss with each other and what the Councillors may or may not discuss in committee (Redman, Council letter SB/rd/166/143 and the Oxford Times).
2. Sending letters to third parties effectively casting doubt on the ability and willingness of specified members of the public to pay their debts without informing the supposed debtors (St John’s College case). A variant on this is writing to third parties suggesting they are being short changed without informing those accused of doing so.
3. Ignoring serious complaints (Craigan, Oxford Times and Burgess, most recently, same paper, May 11th 2001).
4. Preventing the Councillors doing their job properly because the staff refused to disclose the information they needed (letters from Councillors of all parties in March 98 to the Oxford Times. Many of the senior staff at that time are still with us).
5. Requiring standards in private housing that are not applied in the public sector. According to the Council no rooms are let in public housing.
6. Council departments keep secret documents dealing with the personal lifestyle of householders (who does the shopping and where the TV set is kept, for example). The staff are expected to find the answers, sometimes intruding when the householder is not there and not subsequently informing them. They refused us an unfilled in document (Council letter - Siddall) but we have one from another source.
7. The legal department spends over £1 million a year, significant amounts of which go to suppressing legitimate complaints and recklessly wasting taxpayers’ money (both that at the immediate disposal of the Council and ours) in unnecessary litigation in attempts to intimidate opposition. The latest is the Sharp/Huckstep suppression (Oxford Times May 11th 2001). This department needs a totally new staff more in sympathy with the people it is supposed to serve.
We should choose
1. Whether we need to pay parking fees in town in the evenings.
2. Whether we should continue to let City and County Councillors and staff make use of free central car parks while exhorting the rest of us to park and ride.
3. Whether we should reduce congestion in Central Oxford and make the Councils easier to reach by moving them out to Thornhill Park and Ride. This move to the periphery worked well in Leicester.
4. Whether we want our Council Tax increased. Bristol had a vote and said no. It’s not good enough just to demand more money - we want to see the taxes we currently pay properly spent before we let them have any more. A locally elected Watchdog The Councils are bigger than we are. We need an independent person to see fair play and to publicise nonsenses like threatening Marston residents with increased traffic congestion by building large new Brookes accommodation blocks (without local approval, incidentally) and failing to provide parking spaces on the untrue grounds that students don’t have cars.
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