Mayor - Chance to be braver

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MANY things are changing and have already changed in local government since the coalition came to power last year.

The one thing that everybody comments on is the speed with which these changes are taking place. There is a lot of concern from many quarters that change is happening too quickly and there is insufficient time to appropriately plan for them. Obviously the main concern of most people is the size of the cuts that are being imposed and that the Government is going too far.

Saturday’s march in London demonstrated the strength of feeling on this matter and I’m certain most people involved in the public sector in the North-East would agree.

I wholeheartedly support the view that the cuts are too deep. But I’m not so sure that we can’t use the speed of change to our advantage.

In fact, I’m convinced that if we hang around complaining for too long, we will miss a boat-load of opportunities to make the best out of a bad situation.

This was confirmed to me last Friday when listening to a speech by Greg Clark MP, the Minister of State at the Department for Communities and Local Government.

He was a key-note speaker at The Summit, a conference arranged by the Association of North East Councils at which there was a tremendous turn-out for all corners of the region’s public sector.

He spoke about the “big society”, the Localism Bill, the role of local government going forward and fielded some very pointed questions around the cuts and the “big society” in particular.

A lot of what he said was the usual rhetoric that most ministers pump out. Although there were two underlying points that I took from his speech.

He is the first member of this new Government who I have heard, who actually seems to understand the North-East and the issues we face.

He is originally from Middlesbrough and was shadow Minister for Teesside in a previous role, so I would expect him to have an affinity with the area.

But he did give the impression at least, that he has the potential to be a useful ally for the region within Government.

Only time will tell if that will be the case.

The other point that stood out a mile was the overwhelming sense that this Government is not particularly interested in controlling the minutiae of everything local authorities do.

The attitude seems to be that, if we have a good idea, just get on with it.

However, despite all the Government’s talk about giving more freedom and flexibility – and telling us to find our own solutions and solve our own problems at a local level – the reality is that control always goes back to the centre.

It is a very clever approach from the Government as it also tries to shift the blame for things like the cuts down to a local level as well.

However, it it actually gives us huge potential to look at and implement ideas that would never have got past first base in the past.

The culture of local government has always been an extremely risk-averse one. But I believe we now have the opportunity to be a little braver. We can take a few risks that we wouldn’t have wanted to nor been allowed to in the past.

The council needs to be a lot more entrepreneurial both in its approach to services and in its dealings with other partners.

A lot of these changes that are being implemented will strip councils of their responsibilities, services and jobs unless councils become more speculative in their approach.

Those that don’t will become nothing more than a souped up parish council with very little control over the operations of their area.

So, the message I will be sending is that we have had our moan about the cuts – and by all means lets continue to object to the Government’s actions – however, there will be plenty of new opportunities arising out of these changes.

We need to be very much on our toes and with a bit of innovation and forward-thinking, let’s just get on and do it.

Speaking of changes, the Boundary Commission has just published its draft proposals for Hartlepool following its electoral review.

There now follows a 12-week period of public consultation to gain people’s opinion on the proposals and see if there are any viable alternatives.

The full set of recommendations and the maps are available at www.lgbce.org.uk and details of how to respond can also be found there.

In short, the recommendation around the number of councillors follows my proposal to reduce them from 47 to 33.

They also largely follow the council and the Labour Group’s proposals around the boundaries of the wards, – 11 in total.

The changes will come into force following an all-out election in May 2012.

I must say I am personally delighted at the proposals.

I have been campaigning for a reduction in the number of councillors since my very first election and I’m pleased that the Boundary Commission has accepted this proposal.

In this era of austerity and everyone being asked to do more for less, it is only right that we slim down the council membership in line with every other service.

It will certainly put added pressure on the councillors who do get elected next year. But it should also focus people’s minds on dealing with the really important stuff rather than getting tied down with process and procedure.

I’ve yet to pick through the full details of what each new ward will look like as I only received the proposals this morning.

However, it will affect every person in the town as your ward will change.

I’m sure it will affect the political balance of the council, but I’ll leave the political parties to sort that one out.

It will create a much more streamlined, efficient and, in theory, a more effective council which can only be good for Hartlepool.