The following article (written by Chris) appears in this week’s Rayleigh Times:
Let?s begin with some good news. It looks likely that Rochford District Council is going to allow the public to speak at planning meetings. This is long overdue ? the Liberal Democrat councillors proposed this some time ago, but the Conservatives have always blocked it. Now they are coming round to our point of view.
It?s a positive sign in what seems to be a rather slow year. The atmosphere in the council chamber is very pleasant. But it?s the kind of cosy pleasantness you get on one of those Sunday afternoons when you planned to do so much, but instead end up in a comfy armchair watching TV. ?
What I hear again and again from local people is that Rayleigh has grown too fast; we need more facilities, and more action against graffiti, vandalism and nuisance. But they don?t see much happening and the council needs to be more active and more in touch with its residents. Here are some New Year?s resolutions that could improve things:
1) All councillors should keep in contact with residents ? throughout the year. I?ve always been amazed that the Conservatives can produce election leaflets that ask people to vote for them but don?t even mention their candidates? home addresses or their home phone numbers. How do they expect residents to be able to contact them? In the areas where we have Lib Dem councillors we deliver leaflets several times per year that include our full details. For the whole district ? including the areas where we don?t have councillors- we have a website called www.onlinefocus.org that?s full of news. Or you can get our phone numbers from the council.
2) Get some new blood into the Council Chamber. We always need dedicated councillors of retirement age ? and thankfully we?ve got them. My colleague Chris Lumley is a good example ? he spends more time walking around and looking after ?his? ward than any other councillor I know. But we need dedicated younger councillors as well ? and we haven?t got enough. There are 39 District Councillors ? only one of them is in under 40, and only 3 of them are in the forties! 13 are in their fifties, and 21 are in their sixties or seventies.
There are plenty of people under 40 who would do a great job. Recently I was at a committee meeting of a local playgroup. It was a refreshing change to the chamber chamber ? I was struck by the enthusiasm, the speed of the discussions, and the willingness to make decisions. We could do with some of these mums on the council!
During a council meeting before Christmas I was talking about the age-range of councillors and spoke favourably about David Cameron?s wish for a more inclusive, modern, compassionate Conservative Party. At that point one of the Rayleigh Tories couldn?t contain herself and yelled out ?Tosh?. So there?s not much sympathy for David Cameron?s views among our local Conservatives. At least we in the Lib Dems are starting to put up some younger candidates, with experience of modern business life, and of being parents today.
3) Cut down on daytime meetings. We?ve always had some daytime council meetings but things are starting to get ridiculous. Some months nearly half the meetings are during the day!
It?s a sign that the council is slow in making decisions. Too often we could decide something in one night, but instead someone fancies having a ?working party? on the subject. So we have two or three extra daytime meetings and action is delayed. Meanwhile evening council meetings are finishing strangely early. Last month, for example, the evening meetings (which start at 7.30 pm) ended at 8.35, 8.10, 8.59, 9.45, 8.00, 9.20, 9.47 and 8.25. They used to last until about 10:00. It?s almost as if my fellow councillors want to get home early and have a nice cup of cocoa!
Of course, having unnecessary daytime meetings may be a pleasure for some people, but it makes life difficult for those of us who work ? and it?s another discouragement for anyone who works and is thinking of becoming a councillor.
4) Treat the public as partners, not strangers. Sometimes the District Council gives the impression that it doesn?t want to work with local people. One chap in my ward spots graffiti around Rayleigh and then sends details by email to the council. The District Council pays lip-service to clearing up graffiti but so far has cleaned up only about 4 of his sites out of 21. Meanwhile other residents complain to me that they aren?t officially consulted on planning applications ? even when they live only 25 yards away.
The government is talking about reorganising local councils. If we want to avoid being swallowed up by a bigger neighbour we need to prove that we provide a really excellent local service to residents.
5) Trust the Leader of the Council. This may be a strange suggestion, because I?m supposed to be the ?Leader of the Opposition? and criticise him. But Terry Cutmore, the Leader of the Council is trying to do a good job. However sometimes he?s held back by his own group, and decisions get mysteriously reversed. My advice to the Tory group is ? trust your leader a bit more, because if you don?t, we?re not going to get very far.
Best wishes for the New Year!