So, Colchester has again elected a mish-mash of Lib Dems and Labour councillors to run the town hall. And after fighting my fifth election in as many years – and getting soundly thrashed into the bargain – I’m looking forward to a summer of paid work, tending to the allotment and tinkering with my Triumph.
But before I go, I thought I’d share what I’ve learned from my year as a councillor and chuck a few ideas for Colchester’s future into the ring. I don’t know who will be sitting round the cabinet table next week, but if it’s you please feel free to help yourself.
1. Change the way Colchester houses people
Colchester currently prides itself on providing social housing via Colchester Borough Homes. In recent years this pride has been most noticeably expressed by building new council houses. But because the council sells more houses per year via Right to Buy than it can ever build, this will never solve the housing shortage.
If the council wants to do the best for its tenants, it needs to change its housing policy to extract the greatest benefit from central government rules. As things currently stand, if Colchester Borough Homes sells a house at a subsidised price, it has to give money to central government. If a housing association similarly sells a house under Right to Buy, government pays back the difference between the house’s subsidised price and its full market value.
When you also realise that housing associations can borrow money to improve their housing stock, and Colchester Borough Homes cannot, it surely makes sense to transfer CBC’s housing stock to one or more housing associations. That way the borough doesn’t lose money by selling off houses and it can access loans to improve their quality.
It doesn’t matter who owns the housing stock if tenants get the best deal. My dad, for example, lives in a former council owned house in Northamptonshure that is now managed by a housing association called Spire Homes. He says that these days repairs are made much quicker and residents are listened to much better. That sounds like a win / win situation to me.
Oh, and mix up where new houses get built. Put them across the borough rather than creating future ghettoes.
2. Get serious about shared services
One resident complained to me about some overgrown and litter strewn hedges near her home. To get the problem solved, I had to first get the borough council to litter pick the hedges and then get the county council to cut them back. It was impossible to get one council to do both jobs, so solving the problem took needless extra time and money.
It’s a simple example of not using joined-up thinking to benefit residents, but it is one of many. Similarly, Colchester needs to look at where neighbouring councils have facilities, people and expertise that can help the borough (and vice versa).
Take wheelie bins as an example. As things currently stand, it looks like we’re going to get the damned things whether we like them or not. However, if it turns out that people in central Colchester don’t want them but people in the rural parts of the borough do, I doubt the council will want to upgrade its fleet of refuse vehicles to serve only one part of the borough. In this case, why not work with Braintree (which has wheelie bins and the right kit) so they service the rural wards? It would give residents more choice for less investment.
Similarly, are there areas where we can share people and expertise within planning, marketing, parks and other areas? It’s time to start talking to our neighbours and collaborating in the best interests of residents, even if the council feels it is not necessarily acting in its own interests.
3. Depoliticise planning
The recent debacle over Tollgate Village and the Northern Gateway has destroyed residents’ faith in the planning system.
Whether or not the planning committee was rigged for the second Tollgate meeting, the fact is that people believe it was. That destroys the credibility of the decision it made.
As a first step, it should become policy that any decision that comes back to the committee because of the DROP procedure must be assessed by the same councillors who made the original decision. If councillors are unavailable the date of meeting should be changed to one when they are able to sit.
4. Give communities a say on the New Homes Bonus
Mile End has been right royally screwed over by becoming the location of thousands of houses, yet has little or no access to the millions of pounds raised by the council from the New Homes Bonus. The same is happening in Stanway and other parts of the borough. So we don’t have the money we need for community facilities or better infrastructure. This money needs to be removed from the core budget and communities affected by development must be given a say in how it is spent. Wychavon District Council is the exemplar in this respect – we should follow its example.
5. Remove all perceived bias from consultations
When the council consulted on moving the market from Culver Street to the High Street, the company that conducted the consultation also specialised in managing markets. That just looks terrible. All consultations should be conducted by companies with no potential interest in what happens after the consultation has taken place.
6. Be open
When Jason Cobb submitted a Freedom of Information request to find out how much the Council had spent on hauling me in front of the Governance Committee, it claimed it didn’t know because it couldn’t quantify how much time had been spent on the matter by officers including the Monitoring Officer / Head of Legal Services. Yet at the same time it charges Leisure World a ‘Fixed fee based on time recording data’.
It’s patently clear the Council didn’t answer the request because it was embarrassed by the answer – not because it didn’t know the answer.
To help restore the Council’s reputation for transparency, I suggest that all unanswered Freedom of Information requests over the last three years are independently assessed and the requested information released where appropriate.
7. Stop ignoring the expertise that’s already in Colchester
It’s crazy that the council (or our two councils to be more precise) made its plans for the Creative Business Centre without any meaningful input from, for example, the Creative Co-op – which is behind the massively successful Waiting Room and the original Queen Street space for creative people. It’s just one example where the Council ignores grassroots expertise that can help it deliver much better ideas, plans, projects and places. Get out there and talk to people who really know their stuff – and listen.
8. Push local tendering much harder
So many Council tenders go to businesses outside the borough, not because we don’t have the expertise on our doorstep, but because the tenders aren’t promoted widely enough locally. Try and make tenders ‘local by default’ – it helps local businesses and keeps the money in our economy.
9. Stop doing things in the same way as they were done in 1953
When you become a councillor, you get paper copies of all agendas and documents put in your pigeon hole. If you don’t pick them up, the council sends out an officer to deliver them in a sealed bag to your home.
It’s an abysmal waste of time and money. Abolish hard copy council papers and get them to councillors electronically. If they contain confidential information, password protect the pdfs.
10. Change the risk-averse culture in the council
There’s a seriously strong culture of being risk averse within the council. Even the simplest decision seems to get pushed up a chain of command, then is often referred to councillors (who tend to block it if it happens to put an opponent in even a faintly positive light). Not taking risks means not reaping unexpected rewards. Officers should be encouraged to be more independent, and to take risks without fear of getting landed with the blame.
Anyway, I could go on and on and on (town centre, parking, senior officers controlling the council rather than councillors, shifting individual focus from picking up litter to changing the borough, not grandstanding in the chamber on national issues you can’t change and instead focusing on local ones you can, etc etc etc).
But it’s a sunny day, I’ve got an allotment to tend and a sense of rediscovered freedom. There’s more than a little joy to be had for speaking your mind without worrying someone will stitch you up for it…