Many of us were cynical when David Cameron started talking about “the Big Society” (note the capital letters) because we’d say that helping each other, being a good neighbour is what people have always done.
It started to fuel a debate about what the State should provide and how much personal responsibility we have, how much we should expect to do for ourselves. Locally in Calderdale, we’re well-placed to do this because I think that we do have a real sense of “community” across the area and, in leading some work on “transforming neighbourhood and local services”, a major factor must be how well we can join up informal groups (lunch clubs, interest groups and so on) with formal services (eg. Day Care for the Elderly, Sure Start parenting groups).
At the same time as looking at what this means locally for our services in Calderdale, far-reaching changes are now starting to work through the Welfare Benefit system nationally, with the move to Universal Credit and Personal Independence Payments (PIP). I think that we all knew that the size (and cost) of the Welfare system had grown dramatically, and moved on from Beveridge’s plan to achieve freedom from want, disease, ignorance, squalor and idleness. The dilemnas that we’re facing over the future of our public services should challenge us to consider carefully what we want them to provide, who takes decisions about them and how they’re best provided – locally or nationally? Everybody involved in public services nowadays is trying to make sure that any public pound is spent carefully, minimising “back office” costs and maximising direct services.
A prime example is health and social care services: one is free at the point of need and the other can be charged for. There has been a real potential for duplication – different workers from different parts of different services visiting the same person (sometimes even at the same time !). In Calderdale some innovative developments are being made in “integrating” (ie putting together) these services for older people.
The real challenge facing Councils as the changes come together, it seems to me, is how we can ensure that we have well-understood plans (“The Wellbeing Strategy”), our local economy is working well (to maximise a thriving, diverse economy and job opportunities), and effective local services (based around “community hubs”), all of which need the support and active involvement of local people, in both their work and personal lives.
Perhaps this sounds utopian but I think that the local Council has a central role to play in orchestrating this. I’m not at all certain how much the now Labour-run Calderdale Council understand or share this vision!
That’s what Labour promised us when they took control but, if the first Cabinet meeting sets the scene for the coming year, I’m not at all sure that’s what we’re going to get.
First of all, when I asked three questions about the arrangements for the coming year, I didn’t get any clear answers. Which Cabinet member is leading on Public Health (newly transferred back into the Council)? Eventually, Councillor Tim Swift (the Leader) said that he is.
Then, will there be cross-party Budget Review groups?
I think that I heard something about some involvement from other groups (but I wait to see what’s in the final, written answer).
Finally, I asked when the Cabinet will publish its priorities for this year? July or August, was the answer. That’s at least eight weeks after taking responsibility for running the Council. Labour nationally may not appear to have any policies, but they’re not running the country. Locally they are running the Council but they appear not to have any direction. Unlike Liam Byrne when the Labour government left office, we’re pleased to say that we balanced the books as evidenced in the Revenue report to Calderdale Council’s Cabinet last week. Except for Economy and Environment where Councillor Barry Collins has probably been overambitious with what he’s trying to do. Indeed, he listed 20 priorities at the Scrutiny Panel. So there’s again a real danger of a lack of clear vision!
Vote for the people
On a political note, I must express my surprise at how often the Conservatives in Calderdale Council choose not to vote in Council.
On many key issues, most recently and most importantly, the election of the Leader at the recent Annual Meeting, the Conservatives passively supported Labour taking (minority) control of the Council by not voting.
As a Liberal Democrat, however hard some of the dilemnas that we face as Councillors, I’ve always believed that local people elect us as their Councillors to represent and act for them – not to not do nothing.