Mark Whitehead 15 March 2018

Power in the country lanes

It may not be obvious what relevance a ditch by the roadside in the southern English countryside has to big policy issues about the structures of local government.

But in the picturesque south coast county of Dorset, highways maintenance is at the heart of the important question of which organs of governance can best provide services to the public.

There, the county council has decided that government budget cuts mean it can no longer keep up the same level of services maintaining the country lanes where Thomas Hardy once walked.

So county hall in Dorchester has passed responsibility for cutting verges, clearing gullies, painting white lines on roads and cleaning signs down to smaller town and parish councils while it focuses on the most badly damaged sections of highways in the area.

It is an example of a fundamental change taking place in local government: with big city and county authorities merging to become even bigger while at the same time being forced by huge budget pressures to examine the cost benefits of everything they do, one consequence is a growing role for much smaller councils.

As it prepares to meet MPs and other decision-makers during its annual Lobby Day next week, the National Association of Local Councils, representing 10,000 town and parish councils, says the trend is clear.

A survey it commissioned last year among its members showed nearly half had taken on responsibility for 'public realm maintenance' in the previous 12 months. Nearly one in five had acquired extra duties for housing and planning, while other services taken on included property management, transport, youth services and tourism.

NALC has labelled the trend towards a bigger role for smaller councils 'ultra-localism'. The political philosophy behind the approach is set out in a recent report titled 'A Prospectus for Ultra-Localism: Working with Government to Help Communities Help Themselves.'

It puts the trend down to two factors. First, as in the case of Dorset, financial pressure on bigger district and county councils is forcing them to shuffle off some of the discretionary services it had hitherto provided.

Secondly, according to Justin Griggs, NALC's head of policy and communications, it reflects growing confidence among town and parish councils that they are capable of providing some services and best placed to do so given their closeness to their communities.

'Where communities can improve the health of their areas, influence development and housing and help boost local businesses, that's the kind of role local councils are now playing,' he told LocalGov. 'It's about putting communities more in the driving seat.'

To take on this extra responsibility, however, more support will be needed. An urgent concern for NALC which it will be raising at the Lobby Day next week is the forthcoming General Data Protection Regulation coming into force in May. One of its provisions is for the appointment of a data protection officer, and NALC fears the cost to local councils could be as much as a bank-breaking £3.5m.

In Blandford Forum, one of the towns set to take on extra responsibilities from Dorset County Council, plans are well under way with £5,000 set aside to budget for the work on an 'as-and-when' basis - residents have been invited to contact the office when they spot something that needs doing.

The process has not been simple, involving lengthy talks over the complex legal arrangements needed to set out clear responsibilities. An eight-page contract spelling out who does what - and who pays for it - was signed last October.

Blandford town clerk Linda Scott-Giles says the trend towards increasing responsibilities for the town council has been going on for several years.

'We do a lot more than we should be doing anyway,' she told LocalGov. 'This gives us the power to take on some of the things the county council can't do any longer. We welcome the fact that it gives us new opportunities to do more for our community.'

Photo: ©P L Chadwick

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