District councils can deliver

Comment by Cllr Bridget Smith, Deputy Leader, LGA Liberal Democrat Group

Much of my work as a ward councillor these days relates to the mental health of my residents and tackling the anti-social behaviour that diminishes their communities. This is despite my having no formal role over health or policing. It’s a far cry from how it was when I was first elected 15 years ago when it was all about dog poo, bins and planning applications.

I am quite clear why things have moved on. Austerity has whittled away so many of the services that were there to support my community. The NHS is stretched like never before; police numbers are not what they were and many of the services previously commissioned by councils from local charities have been forced to close. When there are no other avenues of support the ward councillor is still there.

I have personally experienced this myself as a long-term carer, previously for both my father, who had dementia, and one of my sons, and now for my 93-year-old mother. When I first became a carer my father attended a day centre three times a week, offering us valuable respite. I succeeded in getting a grant from Cambridgeshire CC to set up a carers group, which we used to hire a hall for our fortnightly meetings. We had speakers, mutual camaraderie and just occasionally… pamper sessions! This offered a brief break in which someone else did the caring and we had time to discuss our mutual experiences and be ourselves. All of this has now gone or is much diminished.

The county council can no longer afford to supply or support such services. With fewer resources the threshold at which you qualify for support from social care is far higher. It is only those with the most serious or debilitating conditions who get help. The withdrawal of public services leaves a vacuum in which many people with disabilities, with caring responsibilities, with mental health difficulties or feeling low have few people to turn to. People feel isolated. Not everyone is aware of which council in the two-tier system has responsibility for what, but they do know me as their local ward councillor. I am their advocate, their gateway to support across the wider system.

It is the very nature of district councils which makes their elected members so approachable. Across the country, there are 2,000 electors per district councillor, compared with 9,000 per county councillor. In practice this will mean a district councillor represents a village, or a distinct neighbourhood of a town, rather than a swathe of villages or half a town. We – like our district council officers – are known in our communities. We are familiar faces who can help.

This evolution of the councillor’s role sprang to mind when I read the findings of research produced by the analysts BritainThinks for the District Councils’ Network, of which I am a vice chair. Districts Deliver: How local people view their councils shows the extent of trust in district councils and the satisfaction with our work. Sixty-eight percent of people said both that their district council was trustworthy and that it was approachable. A similar proportion said it was helpful.

Districts scored considerably better than county councils when people were asked whether councils understood communities and had the interest of local people at heart. When asked which tier of local or central government they trusted to tackle social issues, bring about neighbourhood pride or respond to community crises, people overwhelmingly endorsed their district council.

And it seems our residents overwhelmingly back how we run services. Nearly two thirds described us as high quality, and district councils have a far higher satisfaction level than our counties.

Less familiarity and trust

The purpose of saying this is not to somehow stoke a conflict between district and county councils, which has sometimes been perceived in the past, or to say one is superior to the other. On the contrary, I have huge respect for my county colleagues who work admirably in difficult circumstances. However, it is to make a case for the scale upon which district councils operate; a scale which wins support from the public and is demonstrating that ‘districts deliver’.

We have the lowest number of elected representatives per head in Europe In recent years there have been moves to create ever bigger councils, including in Cumbria, North Yorkshire and Somerset, where district councils will disappear at the start of April. I worry about the disconnect this will bring about between residents and their councillors who should be known in their communities to fulfil the role to its potential. Fewer councils means fewer councillors, and less familiarity and trust.

We have the lowest number of elected representatives per head in Europe. France has 35,000 communes with mayors. Germany has 11,000 municipalities. It is the UK which has abnormal levels of representation – and our councillors, of course, lack the powers and financial resources of many of their continental counterparts. Keep us local, give us reasonable powers and resources and our role can evolve to meet the challenges of the next 15 years. This new research shows that districts are delivering now. It is essential that we are allowed to use our natural advantage as the lynchpins of our community to continue delivering in future.

Bridget Smith

Deputy Leader of the LGA Lib Dem Group; Vice-chair, District Councils’ Network; leader, South Cambridgeshire DC