I want to write “the unitary experiment has failed”. But it’s not an experiment, it’s the real thing. And the political failure of the unitary council is damaging our county.
The unitary council’s idea of civic leadership is to keep to itself grant money that the government intended for town and parish councils. It leads the county by telling local councils they have weeks to adopt services such as libraries, museums and leisure centres, or they will be closed down. Its concept of leading is to hold down its council tax but exhort parish and town councils to raise their precepts through the roof.
The unitary council was established to bring together county services under one organisation. This would save costs. We would get better services for less money. Few people in this part of Shropshire thought the move to a unitary authority was a good idea. But it happened anyway.
Now the unitary council is spitting out any services its doesn’t want to run. It is telling parish and town councils that if they don’t agree to take them on by the beginning of September, it will close them down.
Councils such as Ludlow, Oswestry and Shrewsbury, will need to take on extra staff to run services. They’ll need to work with surrounding parish councils to ensure the burden of costs is fairly shared. A particularly clear example of this is library provision. Central services will be provided by Shirehall and local councils will run the libraries. That’s two layers of bureaucracy to run one service.
That’s why I say Shropshire Council has failed as a unitary council. It was set up to run countywide services. Yet, as it discards services it is not willing to run, we are heading towards recreating new versions of the district councils. That’s failure in my book.
Shropshire Council has also failed as a political entity and as a civic leader. Political leadership is not about doing what is best for a political party. It is not about pursuing political ideology. The objective of political leadership should be to do what is best for the people of Shropshire. That’s not happening right now. This failure will hurt our county for a long time to come.
I believe this unitary council has failed. Totally, utterly failed.
This is what I told Ludlow Town Council last week.
“We know we live in tough times. But let’s go back to 2007 or thereabouts when the unitary authority was first suggested and it was going to solve everything. Things would go into Shrewsbury, it would save us money and we would have better services.
“Let me make it very clear as a unitary councillor, I believe this unitary council has failed. Totally, utterly failed. It can’t keep control of its finances. Roughly £18 million was agreed today to pay for the computer system upgrade and it means that we are spending £50 million on computers over the next five years, as a base line cost.
“Now, we can increase the amount of budget for computing by nearly £20 million because we can scrounge it from our reserves and by moving money around. What we can’t do is move money around to save your library. We can’t move money around to save museums. We can’t move money around to save the youth centre. Because the unitary council, or the Tory leadership, and it is a political point, has simply said, “We don’t want to do it anymore. And it’s for you to do it.” They don’t want to put up council tax. I was the only person to vote against the council tax resolution at the last council because it is not enough at 4%.
“The council’s finances are a disgrace and it is so badly managed that we spend more on cleaning the toilets at the youth centre than we do on running youth services in the building. And this is so throughout the council. The council is appalling and it should be scrapped. And if I had any powers in the world, and I have none, I would scrap it.
“I think most of you here probably voted against it [in 2007]. Most of South Shropshire did. Now, this unitary council is a council at the point of total political failure. That’s the real position.
“However, that doesn’t change the position you look at tonight where, if you don’t take on libraries, or find a way of running libraries, if you don’t take on leisure centres, if you don’t find a way of running youth services, or we don’t, it’s not just the council, we shouldn’t operate in silos, it needs to be all the parishes, all the people together, the whole community, if we don’t do this, then they won’t exist.
“Shropshire Council is at a state of self destruction. It doesn’t want to run anything that it can’t run. And it doesn’t care whether it’s going to close things or not.
“That’s the threat. You have until September, and as you were saying, Mr Mayor, on radio this morning, it is an impossible deadline. It is just a ridiculous deadline. We have this tight deadline. Do we save the services in Ludlow? It is a great town, a fantastic town, and its whole hinterland is well served by public services, that I think I want to keep. I want to keep public services. I believe in the public sector and I believe we should provide public services.
“The town council is now in the forefront of this because the political leadership in Shirehall has failed.”