First appeared in Highley Forum and Highley News, September 2014
So, what’s new at Shirehall that affects Highley? If you count the off-loading of Westgate and the move towards scattering what has always been known as “the council” to the four corners of the county, quite a bit.
We’re all going to have to come to terms with the way local government is changing in Shropshire – in fact, across the UK – because central government is determined that things will get “virtual” because that’s the way of efficiency. Fine for business, but I have my doubts when it comes to democracy at a local level.
Shirehall is working to render itself obsolete, literally. The sale of the building is pretty much a foregone conclusion when all the resident leases come up for renewal in 2016 and NO ONE appears to know what happens then. A move to the Guildhall in Shrewsbury is out because it’s marked for use as part of the ‘campus’ of the proposed University of Shrewsbury. Not that it would have been big enough to house a full council meeting of all 74 current Shropshire councillors anyway, making my earlier prediction of a severe pruning of numbers less of the fanciful supposition that some people were telling me it is.
Stonehouse in Ludlow has gone. Westgate in Bridgnorth has gone. Officers are ‘hot-desking’ or increasingly operating from home or from their car instead of an office at the end of a fixed landline. Bridges have been burnt so a return to “the old system” of governance is now impossible. And as the short-term financial returns from the sale of assets and the ongoing operating savings allows further investment in IT (Information Technology), we’ll see an even remoter council operating at the other end of a broadband connection.
Whether that makes a difference to you will depend on your access to technology. Thankfully we have the Severn Centre for those without their own in-house resources, but unless you feel confident enough to access the internet and know how to search for (and understand) the information you desperately need, not being able to ask a direct question of someone and get an answer you understand could be a problem.
Looking for a job or applying for a tenancy could be a problem; deciding whether you are entitled to a particular benefit could be a problem. Even with the computers at the Severn Centre, the staff there aren’t trained in these areas nor allowed access to the confidential information required to process a query, often an urgent one subject to a time limit.
I’ll help where I can, but there is also a move to remove more council operations into ALMOs (Arms-Length Management Organisations), the acronym pronounced as it’s spelled “Almo”. The direct consequence of this move will see even more of the council’s operations that affect the day-to-day lives of a councillor’s constituents moved out of the local democratic process.
A prime example of how such changes affects my relationship with many people in Highley is ST&RH, Shropshire Towns & Rural Housing, which now manages all the council-owned social (“council”) housing. By definition, they operate at arm’s length from the council and therefore from councillors (although there are a handful of councillors who sit on their management board). Not I, nor the parish council, have any input into housing allocation in this village. When we tried to get a LLP (Local Lettings Plan) which favoured local people introduced, we were told that whatever we asked for would have to be submitted to a panel and assessed against the needs of the county. We were advised that our LLP would most likely be rejected.
Another word that you will increasingly hear is “commissioning”, used in the context of Shropshire Council’s becoming a “commissioning authority”, whereby the council pays a third party to provide the services it currently provides directly. In Highley’s case, the Severn Centre will probably become central to the delivery of services such as first aid training for Children’s Centres, becoming the provider with the council paying them for it, instead of just being an outlet through which the council operates.
So there will be pluses as well as minuses.
Whilst I’m not happy about the distancing of people from the centre of their affairs through the diminution of local representation, given the increasing apathy of people towards the machinery of government, local as well as central, I can understand people believing that the profound changes that are happening will not impact directly on them. Perhaps democracy is increasingly irrelevant to people’s daily lives.
Highley is, after all, (if local demographics are to be believed) a place to which people retreat, either daily from their place of work or on a more permanent basis through retirement, so perhaps we are, as I overheard someone jokingly say earlier this week, a bit like ‘Brigadoon’, where the outside world hardly impinges.
A good job, I guess, it’ll be well happy in the forthcoming virtual world as long as nobody goes looking for a council office door to knock on.