It's the county council elections next week, but something's missing. We've got the battle bus, the leafleting/canvassing and the pro-Con bleatings in blogs;. but where's all the rhetoric and finger-pointing in the letters page of our local newspaper? Normally at this time we've a member (or candidate) for Party A blowing their own trumpet over something they've done while at the same time Party B is highlighting the failures of Party A and how they'd be so much better at sorting things out.
But it's all gone quiet.
Have they all finally grown-up? Have they realised that the general public see through this transparent politicing; or has the Shuttle got a new policy on such blatancy?
Whatever the reason it's quite refreshing. It also means I can do something a little odd and ask "What does the county council actually do?"
Turn to my local council's "about us" which takes me to the "How the Council Works" which is slightly different and I get
The County Council is run by elected Councillors who are responsible for making sure that the services that the Council provides meet the needs of residents and those who work in the county.So what exactly are those services? It doesn't say. The only way to discover this is through inference. I can look at the types of committee and see a "Adult Care & Wellbeing Overview & Scrutiny Panel" and thus infer the council deals with adult care.
Doing this I can make the following list:
Schools and Education
Wait aren't there more panels? Well yes but the Appeal & Review Panel and the like deal with the internal workings of the council; the Police and Crime Panel is simply an oversight committee. the majority of committees in fact deal with what the "How the Council Works" page describes here:
They do this by setting the overall policies and strategies for the Council and by monitoring the way in which these are implemented.In other words most of the services are about saying what should be done and checking up that it is being done. It's about allocating funds across the county and provided a cohesive strategy.
Now I'm going to ask the 'stupid' question - "Why can't this be handled at a district level?" Why do we need to collect everything in a big pot and distribute funds from it; why does the entire county need a cohesive strategy?
Isn't the idea of a pooling funds and distribution a little (whisper it) socialist? Is this the real reason for the Conservative push to return (after being removed by one M.Thatcher) power to the localities? Is this a good thing or a bad thing?
Allow me to demonstrate by providing a local example. Stourport has a local council, Kidderminster has Charter Trustees made up of Kidderminster elected district councillors. It was determined that areas should have 'splash pools' installed. In Kidderminster this would be funded by the District Council; in Stourport it was determined it should be funded by the Town Council.
In other words everyone in the district (including Stourport) should pay for Kidderminster's installation, but only those in Stourport should pay for their own. Whoops.
The problem here is the half-and-half approach. Some things are funded at a town level some at a district. What and who gets to decide which is going to be which? Selfish logic and current policy suggest that everyone should pay for themselves "Why should I pay for something for you?". In this instance we wouldn't have the central pot of the county council, but mini-pots for the districts. Which sounds great except each of those districts would need to raise its own funds. Why is that bad? For the same reason proportional representation is a bad thing - districts vary incredibly.
The district of Worcester (pop. density 3000/km²) could probably easily fund itself; the district of Wyre Forest (pop. density 500/km²) maybe; the district of Malvern Hills (pop. density 130/km²) would probably struggle.
Isn't this just the nature of completion though? Paraphrasing a certain libertarian - if they can't afford what they want they should move to somewhere that can. Of course they can just raise prices, which will see more people leave except this treats places as interchangeable and they're not. This area is good for growing crops, this area for pasture. I can't just move my seeds/herds over to a different district and drop them anywhere. A poor type of thinking that occurred during the war in which non-farmers would descend on rural districts and demand that their pasture land be turned over for crop production (and one that many urbanites still seem to hold).
Of course they could stay and pay the extra money, but that needs to come from their production. You know the non-essential things this country could easily do without like food. So food prices would increase. "That's okay" say the libertarians "If the cost of food goes up it will spur more investment into that sector which will result in greater efficiency and the price going back down" What you mean as has happened to energy costs? Again this is fungible thinking - crops are highly profitable therefore I will grow more crops. Excellent where exactly will you be doing this? Exactly which crops are you going to be sowing now knowing they will be profitable in the future. Investors don't like growing crops, they want other people to do it for them then bet on the results.
Investment also isn't necessarily about what's needed either. Keeping things simple imagine I have 6 fields and it costs £1,000 each to grow crops in them. Total cost to grow £6,000. To harvest them costs £100 each so total cost is £6,600. Market prices is £1,200 per field so I make £600 total.
But what if the supply was to drop? Demand is still there so the price goes up. In this instance imagine I burn 3 of my fields and harvest the other 3. Cost is £6,300; with the reduced supply so long as the market price increases to over £2,300 per field I'll make more profit than selling all 6 at £1,200 each. This is how OPEC allegedly works. The oil is still in the ground they just decide not to take it out and oh look the price goes up.
Back on track and this is why the 'everyone for themselves' approach to funding can result in catastrophe for everyone. So we need central funding. But can't we have central funding and have everyone decide how they use their share themselves? In other words it's the second question "Do we need a county-wide strategy?"
Exactly what is a county strategy; heck what is my county's strategy? Well there are different strategies for the different services; so what's the strategy towards museums? I can't seem to find one. The closest I can find is the Forward Plan and that's future decisions about strategy rather than what is strategy.
For example I can find out that they're discussing the Hoobrook Link Road, but what's my county council's position on the road network? Do we need more roads, less, should we be concentrating on repairing the ones we've got? Not a clue.
Yet supposedly this is one of the key services our county councils provide. Is it required? Without knowing what the strategies are it's difficult to criticise, but there are some areas that can be 'felt' around.
The difficulty with county-wide decisions is that they can depend on those counties that abut yours. It's all very well deciding on setting up a high-speed rail link, but it's not much use if you can't connect it to the main line because it's in another county who don't want it. Does the council request more schools to be built; fine; except why couldn't the local council have determined that?
All four of the services I've listed could be handled at a local level without the need for central planning. However there are two more services I've not listed and that's because they operates as a separate body.
Firstly is West Mercia police which covers an area larger than Worcestershire. It does have 'district' sections, but overall policy comes from the main body.
The second is the Highways Agency; the actions of which are probably ones that are most visible.
Do either of these bodies need to be at the level that they are? Could we not have district police and district highways that deal within the district? Heck funding already seems to be divvied up in this way; are we just getting efficiencies of scale or is the size isolating them from the communities?
In conclusion - on the one hand we need an elected body to determine how and who gets what from the central pot of funding and to ensure that funding is used for the purposes intended. On the other hand we don't seem to need a centralised area of strategy or top-down approach to highways and the police.
Do we need a county council - perhaps, but not in its current form.