Thursday, February 11, 2010

Embryonic

I suppose the seed was sown, initially, during a Saturday lunchtime drink at the Ranelagh Arms in Wellingborough. I was with two old friends, Matt and John (not my nephews) and I hadn't seen either of them for quite a few years. It was a case of previously... and previously John had been the closest thing I'd met to a young fascist in all my years. Yes, I'd met young Conservatives, but never someone so devotedly right wing as John. He could have been a poster boy for the BNP.

However, there was I, spouting how, if I ever had the chance to run the country, the first thing I'd do is turn us into Norway. Not literally, obviously, but world politically. I said I was fed up with the UK being the World's Peace keeper's deputy. I was fed up with the UK being a target for extremists, not because of who we are, but because of who we align ourselves with, in things that we should just keep our noses out of. I said, if I had any control at all I'd say, "I'm sorry UN and NATO, but we're turning ourselves into a neutral country; we're not going to be the world's policeman any longer; we're going to cut our defence expenditure by 70%. We're going to have a small, but perfectly formed armed forces, to defend ourselves - ONLY. Yes, we'd be happy to send a few thousand troops as UN peace keepers, but forget about anything else. That's means you America. We've just stopped subsidising your 'peace' machine.' Then I said we'd use the billions - yes, BILLIONS, of pounds saved, on fixing things like the NHS, the economy and unemployment. Maybe invest some of it into rebuilding an infrastructure again, or just paying off the people we owe money to. It's radical, but John sat there and, despite coming from a military background, said, "You get my vote!" And he was being absolutely serious about it.

I'm a greenback. I'm wet behind the ears. But, I'm not stupid. While I take a great interest in politics, I'm just a pathetic novice when it comes to actual politics and understanding the machinations, the moving and the shaking; but so are most other people who enter into politics. They do it, it would appear, because they think they can make a difference - especially in local politics. Now, I have to be careful here, because I work for one of my local councils - the one I can't run as a councillor for; plus I just have to be careful with what I say; walls have ears and blogs have tentacles that stretch far beyond our understanding (One of my Facebook friends is also friends with 4 other of my friends, but none of those friends know each other! That's just an example of how the Internet is a bizarre version of Six Degrees of Separation).

My personal beef, for years now, have been the gradual erosion of what I regard as front line services. But, you see, this is where my naivety comes in, big time. My idea of front line services are not other peoples idea. In modern parlance these are things like social services, education and local care; and while I agree that these are indeed important services, I'm talking about the services that the council tax payer sees on a weekly basis - the things he sees his or her money being spent on, out in the open. This, for Northampton, would be refuse collection, street lighting and road repairs, perhaps law and order, especially if you live in a notorious area.

Take garbage collection. It's all very efficient now, with recycling and... er... actually, rubbish collection had deteriorated so much in the 10 years I've lived in this house it's laughable and yet, one of the fantastic ways that local councils see themselves saving money is to make refuse collection chargeable - outside of your council tax. Collecting our rubbish is an essential service and in the last 15 years I've seen more rules, regulations and directives passed to sink a battleship. While living in Wellingborough, in 1998, the bin men, always a well respected section of society (regularly tipped at Christmas in old days) lost all of that respect almost over night when the council's health and safety executive decreed they could no longer retrieve wheelie bins from peoples front gardens; if it wasn't by the side of the road, it would be ignored. I lived in a road with at least 4 pensioners, two over 80, who pretty much depended on the friendly local bin man to collect their bins from under their front windows. Needless to say that after a few weeks, you didn't need verbally reminding that the pensioners' bins were not being emptied as often as they should.

Then the ban on black bin bags came into being. Yes, I understand that they might have infected needles in them, but trust me when I tell you that councils have lists and lists of character studies of dodgy residents. I know that the Borough has dossiers on a number of people living in their properties, who, for the want of better descriptions, are either drug addicts, fiddlers of some kind or unemployed and claiming benefits. We now live in an environment of sharing of information between key organisations - it doesn't work very well, but it's in place...

My whinges about refuse collection are specific and immovable, just as the Borough council is immovable about being flexible about their policies. Councils have always essentially been the purest form of service industry, yet, frankly, we don't get any service.

Personally, this county needs a unified council; we're antiquated and run by two tiers of local government that seem to continually fail to grasp the understanding that they were elected to serve the people of their wards or boroughs. Over the years, both councils have come up with ideas that are so bizarre and stupid that you wonder, sometimes, what these people are doing in the town hall - and I'm talking about Labour and Conservative; they're both as uniquely bad as each other. As far as I can remember these councils have never got it right and now we might have the lowest council tax in the country, but we're also £8million in debt; a figure that could rise. This means one of two things - cuts in services already stretched to the bone, or redundancies, meaning that services already stretched thin will suffer regardless.

However, my basic manifesto if I was to run for the borough councillor seat in the next local elections would be this: increase council tax by a minimum of 15%, preferably 30%. Look at the council's annual budget and suggest making cuts to things like the employment of consultants and agency staff; cutting out certain middle managers who do nothing but facilitate the upper and lower levels. Maybe abolish car parking charges in the town, to encourage more people to actually use it and once the businesses see an increase in turnover, crank up their rates accordingly; but get them moving in the right direction first. Instead of trying to turn the once historic market square into something, anything, but a market square, I'd turn it back into a real market, and I'd promote it. I'd cut the rents; I'd lay on more facilities (or open it up to more). I'd stand against anything being suggested that wasn't for the long term good of the town. Its time Northampton woke up and realised its big but its never going to be a city - not while most of us are still alive anyhow. The town needs revitalising and the only way to do that is to get people to want to return to it and at the moment that isn't happening.

I'd want to see more beat Bobbies; more solving of crimes rather than the passing out of crime numbers for insurance purposes; and obviously from a personal position, I'd like to see more money put into social services and the agencies and organisations that work in partnership with them; because if you make people feel happier about the place they live, they tend to be less rowdy and anarchic.

One of the craziest decisions the councils have made in recent years was the abolishing of the Youth Service (again). This is a little like a dairy farmer killing off all his female cows; yes there's plenty of animals left, but nothing for them to do and nothing ends up being produced. The youth are the future of this town, county, country and planet, yet this country's governments and all the local governments seems to disregard this - let the parents sort out that problem; this is the attitude that I think permeates the thinking of those in charge.

The bottom line is that for every pound you spend on council tax, a fairly whacking lump of it will go to pay for council employees (such as me), council follies and expenses, consultancy fees and emergency overpaid agency staff. In fact, like your income tax, you'd really be hard pressed, regardless of the financial breakdowns offered, to actually work out where your money goes.

But, of course, council tax is one of those indirect taxes we don't tend to think about because it doesn't come out of our wage packets. Plus, we're in a recession (or coming out of one, at least) and no one wants to have to pay more money for anything; despite the fact there's a growing need for us to pay more.

This week we saw the future in microcosm. Regardless of whoever gets elected at the next general election, the UK is so up to its neck in debt, it is going to have to cut public spending; that's less subsidies to local government and anywhere else that provides a service to the country. In Birmingham, the 2nd largest city, we're seeing a desperate situation. The incumbent Tory council have held council tax to the same level as inflation since they've been in power; this cumulative effect has meant that in 2010 they are £89m in debt and have to lose 2000 jobs, either through voluntary redundancies or natural wastage - possibly even enforced redundancies. That's life and we can all hope that the 2000 losses won't make much difference; but the UNISON union man summed it up pretty well - with public spending cuts every year to fight the national debt, unless council tax is increased to a level of sustainability then it means that even front line services may be seriously cut in the next 5 years. Or in other words, if you think this is bad, over the next 5 years its going to get so bad you'll be wondering why you pay council tax at all.

A Tory government will mean hikes in indirect taxes (council tax, VAT, etc) and because it isn't coming out of your wages it doesn't hurt as much. It also means a drastic reduction in the money being spent on YOU. You have to pay the price for the last 30 years of ups and downs and unstable governing. You elect these people; no one else is to blame, and if you don't ever vote, you're just as bad. Anyone entering politics now is in for a rough ride, because principles may have to be compromised if anything is to be achieved. What is needed, in this age of expenses scandals, extra-marital affairs and Eton toffs, is a way where real people actually get the chance to have a say, if they feel strongly enough and can convince the voters. There has been a real history of real people going into politics, but most of them whither and die or become stereotypical comedy politicians, like Denis Skinner.

So, I suppose what I'm saying is that I'm going to seriously look into running for local council in the next elections. Even if all I do is go into the chambers (if elected) and ask some difficult and albeit naive questions; I'll not pander to whims of other, ambitious, politicians. My principals have got me this far, they can take me a bit further.

Now, I know that I have some skeletons in my closet. Yes, I have inhaled; yes, I was unemployed for a long time during the 80s; I have probably either known or associated with some people who could quite easily destroy a serious political career; but I'd like to think that they were better for knowing me. I don't think real people give a toss about someones past, as long as it isn't to nefarious or sick. All they really care about is whether or not the person they vote for is going to do the job for them; which might explain why turn out for local elections is so woefully pitiful compared to the just plain old pitiful for general ones.

My cause was boosted at the knowledge that an independent who stood for her local council polled 1.034 votes, beaten into 2nd place by the extant councillor, who polled 1,312 votes. She spent £40 on her campaign, which involved A5 fliers, a few larger posters and a door-to-door campaign. The winner had the full force of the local Conservative election machine behind him!

So, the next few weeks are going to taken up with some conversations. An old acquaintance of mine stood for local elections last year; another old acquaintance was a mayor, and another one used to be a Labour MP; so I've got some experience at hand, if they chose to share it.

Let's see if we have a game worth playing, huh?

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