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Monday Memories – Finding a Middle Way

County Hall in Beverley. Now East Yorkshire, but, in the 1980s, the home of Humberside County Council. George Robinson [CC BY-SA 2.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)%5D

34 years on from my election to Humberside County Council, as one of four Liberals holding the balance of power, I cringe at my naivety. I recall being interviewed for the local TV. Asked what I hoped would be better about Humberside at the end of my four year term of office I struggled to come up with an answer and produced something pretty vague about giving people a bigger say in the decisions we took.

One certainty in politics is that everyone thinks they can do better than the current crop of politicians at all levels of government. That was certainly the belief I had on entering politics. It was not long before I came across a number of people who felt the same and found myself explaining that it is not as simple as it seems from what you read in the papers. Quite early on I invited a critic, someone who had written scathingly about the council in a letter to the Grimsby Telegraph, to accompany me on my next briefing session with the Director of Education so that he would have a better understanding of the kind of problems we had to grapple with. To his credit, that man wrote a second letter to the Grimsby Telegraph expressing his appreciation for what I had done.

We had access to the experience of Liberals on other councils where there was no party with an over all majority. These advised strongly that we should not seek alliances with either of the other two parties and this policy was endorsed nationally by the Liberal Party. We might be only 4 men, but together we represented about a quarter of all of the votes cast in the election; we had our own policy priorities, some of which were shared with Conservatives, some with Labour. We would need to consider each decision on its merits, not vote consistently with only one of the other parties.

This proved hard for the others to accept. They were used to a situation where the casting vote, if needed, was the Chairman’s – normally it would not be needed since each service committee would, like the council, have a majority of members from one party. For them this was a new and strange situation. We had to persuade the other parties that, for the next four years, committees would have equal numbers of Labour and Conservative members plus one Liberal; the committee’s chair person would not have a casting vote, the Liberal member would.

To begin with, Labour would not accept committee chairmanships on that basis, so we supported Conservative chairmen (they did not offer any women for these positions.) That lasted until the setting of the first annual budget early in 1986.

There is an endemic problem with the way local government is funded in the UK, one that is, if anything, worse now than it was in the 1980s. A mixture of government allocation and local property tax means that any reduction in the government allocation has to be met, either by a disproportionate amount raised locally, by cuts in services, or by charging for some services. Moreover, there are certain services the council has a statutory duty to provide and which cannot, therefore, be cut, which means that other services are particularly vulnerable to cuts and/or charges. Every such enforced decision – increasing taxes or charges, or cutting services – is bound to make the local politicians unpopular.

The education department, for example, was legally bound to provide education for children aged between 5 and 16 – and beyond for those able to benefit from continuing full time education. Adult education and provision for under 5s were therefore extremely vulnerable to any cuts in the education budget. Councillors on the political right were especially scornful of such provision. Still clinging to old fashioned notions about women’s roles, they believed that, should a mother choose to return to the workplace, she must pay for whatever provision was made for the care and education of her infants until they reached the statutory age for starting school. Likewise, adult education was regarded by the same individuals as a hobby activity which should not be tax-payer funded.

Similar arguments were used in the Social Services area with regard to the provision of home care services.

We were not prepared to support such policies and joined with Labour in voting down the budget proposed by the Conservatives, whereupon they resigned the chairmanships. Labour accepted the chairmanships (including one female) on our terms. That remained the position for the rest of the four year term.

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Life Changing Events

A few days ago Stevie Turner posted on this subject, taking her cue from an earlier post by Colline Kook-Chun. It inspired me to think about some of the events that influenced the direction my life has taken.

reunion-of-giants

  1. My father’s death in action in 1943. Had he survived the war, who knows what my life would have been like? I would probably have been brought up as a Londoner, since both parents were from there. I certainly would not have gone, at age 10¾ to a boarding school established for boys who had lost one or both parents. The school still exists, although the majority of pupils these days pay expensive fees. I shall be back there later this year celebrating 60 years since I left. Thanks to modern technology, many of my contemporaries communicate regularly with each other despite being scattered in different parts of the world.
  2. Meeting my wife in the summer of 1961. I was 19, she 16. I proposed in the early hours of December 27th, as I walked her home from the Boxing Night dance. We kept our engagement secret until her 17th birthday in June 1962 and were married in September 1963.
  3. Discovering, in the spring of 1965 as we moved into our first new house, that she was pregnant. We had not planned to start a family quite so soon but our son brought a new phase in our lives as a family unit and, as you will discover below, led to us coming to live in Ireland.
  4. Joining the staff at the Engineering HQ of a large corporation in the summer of 1968. That took me to South Africa and eventually to East Lincolnshire. Altogether I worked for over 18 years for that corporation and the pension I paid into now provides about 1/3rd of my annual income. It also led to:
  5. Being elected to Humberside County Council in May 1985. I was one of 4 Liberals elected that year. The other two parties had 35 and 36 members so we held the ‘balance of power’, able to veto any proposal from either of the other parties. I like to think we used this power wisely. It was certainly extremely time consuming because, in order to do the job, we had to be represented on every committee, sub-committee and working party.

    humber-bridge

    The Humber Bridge. Image via Scunthorpe Telegraph

    My employer was extraordinarily generous with allowing me time off to do this, but after a year and a half I was offered the choice: cut down on your council activities or take redundancy. The redundancy offer was generous and I accepted, having visions of a new career as a writer and politician. After working, unpaid, for the party in the run-up to the 1987 General Election I needed to find some alternative source of income which takes us to:

  6. Our shop. We decided that, since Freda had worked all of her life in shops, latterly as manager of a charity shop, we should set up our own shop. I would look after the administration whilst she worked ‘front of house’. I researched the market and decided that Cleeethorpes could benefit from having a quality glass, china and giftware outlet. A unit was available in a building belonging to a kitchen design specialist who had his show-room upstairs. This seemed like an excellent fit. I talked to potential suppliers, put together a business plan and everything looked promising until the building went on sale. The owner’s plan to increase his income by creating and letting units had not worked out. Any thought that the new owner might still be interested in having us as a tenant was dashed when planning permission to open a fast food outlet was applied for.

    The next premises we looked at meant a complete change of plan. It was a moderately successful food retailer. The owner, a chef, prepared a range of chilled ready-meals in a kitchen at the back which he sold in the shop, alongside the usual deli-type goods and speciality foods. His recipes had been so successful that he had taken a small factory unit in Grimsby and wanted someone to take on the retail business, with him continuing to supply the popular ready meals. We opened in September and did great business in the run up to Christmas. Then the chef lost a big contract and had to close the unit so we lost our main supplier. We struggled on for the next few months but the risk involved in food retailing is enormous and we just could not compete with the supermarkets who were starting to develop their own deli counters and chilled ready meals.

    I got a part-time job writing business profiles for a regional business magazine but in the May 1989 election I lost my council seat and returned to my original career as an Engineer.

  7. Our son’s marriage in 1993. His wife is Irish and in due course they moved to Dublin with their daughter. So, when considering retirement options in 2006, moving to Ireland to be near them was a ‘no brainer’. More than eleven years on we are still here, enjoying life in a small Irish country town where we have met many new friends, some through the writing group to which I belong, and some through the support centre for people touched by cancer where we both volunteer.

At the end of Stevie’s post are two questions, originally posed by Colline. Here they are, with my answers:

  1. Is it a bird? Is it a plane? No, it’s… a Ryanair jet bringing home the owner of the Grand National winning horse and offering free drinks to all the passengers
  2. What music do you like: Jazz, Folk, Rock, Blues, Broadway/West End Musical scores.

Thanks, Colline and Stevie, for the inspiration. I wonder how many of my followers will be tempted to follow suit?