New look needed for councils

WHEN an independent committee recommended that allowances for Suffolk County Councillors should go up by 30 per cent, it was probably as inevitable as night following day that they would be rejected out of hand.

WHEN an independent committee recommended that allowances for Suffolk County Councillors should go up by 30 per cent, it was probably as inevitable as night following day that they would be rejected out of hand.

“It's not the right time for this kind of rise,” council leader Jeremy Pembroke told me. Which rather begged the question: Is there ever a right time for this kind of increase?

But the question that the rise really ought to be raising is: shouldn't the current structure of local authorities be thrown out of the window altogether.

In Ipswich there are 61 councillors' positions - 48 on the borough and 13 on the county council. There aren't 61 councillors because some double-up on both authorities.

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It's about time this farce was ended. Having two authorities is inefficient and confusing for the general public - and after years of pussyfooting around it looks as if the government is finally moving to make changes.

There have been many different ideas about how councils could be reorganised - boroughs and districts are too small, we hear, but the county might be too big to take all the small-scale decisions.

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I used to accept that argument - favouring splitting Suffolk in three based on Ipswich, Bury and Lowestoft.

Now it's clear that won't happen and in a world of rapidly-changing communications, it seems that a single authority running almost all of Suffolk is quite feasible.

By “almost all of Suffolk” I mean that Lowestoft might well be separated from the rest of the county and absorbed into a new east Norfolk authority. Culturally it's more Norfolk-looking already.

And this is where we come back to the issue of councillors' pay. If we end up with a single authority running all the council services in all of what is left of Suffolk, do we really want to leave the decisions of 60 amateurs (or at best part-timers).

Already it is very difficult to attract working people on to councils - the work of a councillor is

demanding and requires a lot of time.

Allowances are not enough to make it a full-time job (unless you are the leader of Suffolk County Council and regard £23,000 as sufficient reward for controlling a budget of many hundreds of millions of pounds).

I've spoken to current council leader Jeremy Pembroke who got involved in local politics after retiring from Hambros bank in the City of London and he assures me that the £23,000 allowance he receives is not the primary motivation for his council work!

The people you get standing for winnable seats tend to be retired, self-employed, or not employed full-time. There are exceptions - but the balance of local authorities is in no way representative of the balance of society as a whole.

Wouldn't it be better to have the whole of Suffolk run by 15 full-time councillors who can do their work full-time like an MP?

Wouldn't three full-time councillors for Ipswich be better than 61 part-timers who don't have enough time to do the job properly?

There's no reason why such a move should cost any more than the current set-up with allowances that are high enough to be useful but too low to be a living wage.

That's what happens in other countries like America and Australia - many visitors from those countries cannot believe our amateurish approach to local authorities.

SUFFOLK Preservation Society has launched a campaign called “Whose Master's Voice” aimed at increasing the involvement of parish and town councils in making planning decisions.

I sincerely hope that the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister, or whoever receives the campaign literature, treats it with the respect it deserves . . . and files it straight in the bin.

Frankly this country's growth and development over the last 50 years has often be stymied by an over-sensitive planning laws that have put the brake on any developments.

Of course we need a planning system - we don't want to see Christchurch Mansion bulldozed to make way for a new housing estate.

But too often there have been delays while objectors use every trick in the book to slow down or stop a development.

In the time it took to design, get planning permission, and build the 80-mile Channel Tunnel Rail Link, German railways built new high-speed lines all over the country.

In Ipswich planning officers have found that by streamlining the decision-making process they are able to handle complex applications, like those around the Waterfront, very efficiently.

That's why the borough's planning department has been given extra government grants to reward its efficiency. And that's why we're seeing so much development around the Waterfront at last.

Thank heavens officers in Ipswich don't have to cope with parish councils, whose sole aim in life sometimes seems to be to put a brake on any development, however beneficial it might be.

I've always had difficulty in seeing the point in parish councils - they don't seem to serve any purpose except for slowing down all decisions.

They need more power to delay development like an alcoholic needs a double vodka!

CHARLES Kennedy is apparently coming under fire from his own MPs as the party fails to make an impact on the new politics.

I'm not really surprised - he always comes across as a thoroughly nice chap but I'm not convinced about his ability to play hardball when David Cameron and Gordon Brown really start having a go at each other.

But what does surprise me is that anyone else would want his job. At the next election half his seats will come under attack from Cameron's Conservatives and the other half will be targeted by a Brown-led Labour Party.

That means the number of Lib Dem MPs will fall. Maybe not dramatically - they have a habit of building up a formidable personal vote - but this year's new intake will be especially vulnerable and it will be difficult for new candidates taking over from retiring MPs.

Whatever happens, Mr Kennedy's successor - and I'm pretty sure he won't still be around in 2009 or 2010 - will see his parliamentary party cut back significantly.

And the long-heralded “breakthrough” will be put off undil another point in the political cycle.

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