Wednesday, 10 April 2013

The end of an era for me

After an awful lot of thinking over the past few months, I have decided to stop being a local councillor. After ten years of the privilege of representing the people of Prudhoe West on Tynedale then Northumberland Councils, I just can’t continue to give my personal and professional life less than 100% of my attention. I have recently accepted a job as the Chief Executive of a new Citizens Advice Bureau in County Durham that will do the work of 4 bureau that are merging to form Greater Durham CAB. It’s a massively exciting task and it will need all of my time and then some!

I was persuaded to stand in Prudhoe for the council after I received a leaflet from the sitting Labour councillor telling me something like “ten reasons why being a councillor is harder than you think” so I don’t want to exaggerate my role in the town since 2003. Well not much! I like to think that I have given an effective voice of opposition to the tribal Labour consensus in Prudhoe and to the arrogant Tories of Tynedale. I have always said what I think and been happy to stand by it.

I will be most proud of the last five years. After being elected to a new Northumberland unitary council that no one but some county councillors and John Prescott wanted, the Liberal Democrat minority administration have absorbed cut after cut to our budget and managed the establishment of a new council with virtually no constructive support or indeed viable alternative agenda from the opposition Labour and Tory councillors who together make up the big majority of councillors. They could together outvote us on any matter. But every budget was passed, with the opposition not wanting the responsibility of sorting out the mess that, in some of their cases at least, they left for us to sort out.

In my first year as a county councillor, I led on a review of funding for our community and voluntary sectors, who I think do some of the most effective work for the least funding. We did a few things I am very proud of. In the first year we stopped any budget cuts to the sector and by year two we took all small grants and gave them to local members to administrate through the community chest. In doing so we faced opposition from officers at county hall and recognised that there was less state support for charities in rural areas so gave disproportionate support to the North and the West of the county. The system has worked well. For bigger groups, we professionalised their funding so it was clear what we got for our money and implemented a 20% cut. But we did not just “salami slice” grants but engaged in intelligent commissioning, prioritising funding for organisations in the county critical to responding to  the recession, such as credit unions.

In my last two years, I took up the role on the council of executive member for Culture and Customer service. This meant I led on matters Sporting, Libraries, Arts, call centres and our approach to the customer. I was very lucky to work with a small but dedicated team of council officers. Many of them have moved to Northumberland because we were positive about growing and investing in these services when other councils slashed and burned. We have saved millions by investing in modern facilities. So where the old council got volunteers to run libraries, we got libraries sited with Tourist Information centres and in community centres so that they could save money and contribute to the viability of another organisation. A good example of this flexible approach is the Spetchells centre in Prudhoe. More services provided in Prudhoe than ever before.

So I leave behind a trimmer more efficient council than before with thousands less middle managers but with the front line services largely unscathed. My only disappointment is that we could only make limited inroads to the customer experience of people who contact the council. Although the call centre experience has improved, the responsiveness of the local services team as a whole (there are some great individuals in the depots and offices) has remained poor.

The Liberal Democrats in the council have put up with a lot of rubbish being said about them, in the media and through other channels. People forget the levels of savings required and the record of our predecessors and neighbours. That’s fine, because criticism comes with the job but it doesn’t mean I have to lie down and take it like some expect!  Being a councillor is a great thing to do but it is very intense. I look at some of the other councillors who have done it for decades (to be fair many of them do an excellent job still) and I think that is no life for them and their partners and that we need to give someone else a crack once in a while. Its easy to go “native”. After 10 years, if re-elected, I know I would be too defensive of my record and too dismissive of other approaches to carry on. I also know what good I have done for local people so I don’t need to defend my record in the ward to people, the media or other politicians. That’s why there will be no “why it’s harder than you think” lecture from me.

In the town I have been privileged to represent there are a few stand out characters I would like to pay tribute to. Bill Garrett has been the county councillor for the other side of Prudhoe and despite not knowing each other well before being elected to county council, he has treated me fairly and I have valued his counsel, picked up from over 40 years of service to the town and from having a dad involved in the towns politics before him.

Charles Hope and Yvonne Probert (now sadly redundant) have done a great job on the Prudhoe Partnership, often unfairly maligned by traders and town councillors. I am full of admiration for local community figures such as Jill Keeler (Heritage Accountancy) and Andrew Elridge (Yellow Estate Agents), who I hope can be persuaded to risk the flak that comes from putting your head above the wall in local politics some time soon.

The elections are on May 2nd and its important you vote or you effectively veto your right to a legitimate opinion. In Prudhoe there are some established figures standing for election and some new faces. I would say its time to give someone different a go in the town, which is in desperate need of some fresh blood in the body politic.