Last night I took part in a full council meeting that lasted for well over four hours – and even then we failed to get through the agenda.
Great news, you might say. A chamber full of elected representatives making a real difference for the people of Colchester.
In fact, we spent most of our time debating things that the council is – with the best will in the world – powerless to change.
The whole thing reminded me of the famous editorial in the Irish local paper, the Skibbereen Eagle, which in 1898 proclaimed grandly that it would “keep its eye on the Emperor of Russia“.
In both cases, ambition wildly exceeded influence.
Let me explain it another way. Our borough council has 60 councillors who are elected to provide political leadership to an organisation that collects your rubbish, considers planning and licensing applications, provides car parks, runs a leisure centre and a market, upholds food hygiene standards, licenses taxis, provides social housing (via Colchester Borough Homes) and so on.
In theory, you vote for your councillors so they can work together to make these things work better, to attract people to the town and generally improve our quality of life.
Okay. Now we’ve covered their remit, imagine you witnessed elected councillors spending over four hours arguing about:
- Whether to declare war on Azerbaijan
- Whether to designate the whole of Cornwall as a national park
- Whether to disestablish the Church of England
- Whether to start a dolphin breeding programme in the Severn Estuary.
You’d scratch your head and wonder what the hell these things had to do with making your borough the “place to live, learn, work and visit.” And then you’d probably sigh and head to the pub, where at least those with lofty talk accept they’re not going to change the world.
If you think this sounds far fetched, it’s not all that wide of the mark. Among the agenda items last night were motions to:
- Oppose government proposals on the right to buy Housing Association properties
- Express concern about cuts to the Police
- Support the campaign against the Trade Union Bill
All very lofty. And for what it’s worth I have reservations about Right to Buy (i.e. how the money raised will be invested), strongly support an increase in the Police precept in our Council Tax, and think Trades Unions are generally a force for good, (if in dire need of reform).
But what can Colchester Council do to solve these problems one way or another?
The answer: very little.
It can write letters to MPs, go on the record to say the Council thinks one national policy or another is a Bad Thing and… well, that’s more or less it.
As I said last night during the Right to Buy motion, surely debating these issues is just a waste of time and money? Wouldn’t it be better for councillors to share positive ideas about local issues – such as discussing practical and imaginative steps to solve the very real housing shortage in Colchester?
Opposing Right to Buy is all fine and dandy if that’s what you believe, but Colchester Council will never change the policy. What’s needed is for us to put our heads together – ignoring party lines – to find ways of getting a roof over the heads of Colchester people who need one.
In essence, we can pull together to find solutions for our borough. Or we can bicker about national issues and condemn government policies because we like sticking one on our political opponents.
What I do know is that, as a result of last night’s seemingly endless session, we did nothing that will help house people, reverse Police cuts or influence the Trade Union Bill.
And in the meantime, the town centre dwindles, we build dormitory housing estates with few community facilities, and tourists pass through Colchester on their way to London or Norwich.
I think that’s a real shame.
At least we voted down a plan to introduce emissions charging in the town. We’re putting off shoppers enough as it is.