#23. The Villages of The Damned.


The Shropshire Star of the 14th June, 2016, carried a report of a meeting in Shrewsbury Guildhall called by Shropshire Council to get Chairs and Clerks of town and parish councils to “consult” on the fate of service provision in the county following Shropshire Council’s declaration of intent to stop supporting discretionary services.

Town and parish councils having been given until September to decide which of those services they are prepared to either take over (and fund) or “allow” to go – the choice being yes or no – I think the meeting was intended to give everyone the chance to choose how discussion of those albeit limited options would go ahead. I don’t think brick walls were meant to come into the equation.

I was there as a member of the Performance Management Scrutiny Committee, not because I happen to be a Highley parish councillor. It was not a happy meeting and Chief Executive Clive Wright did not get a good reception. Mind you, he didn’t exactly help himself.

Shropshire Council once again threw a raft of issues onto the table for others to sort out, then said they’d call another meeting when everyone else had done their work for them. In Shropshire Council’s book that is “consultation”, in my book it’s called asking for trouble because not only is it obvious you’ve not done your homework but you’re hoping no one will notice. Fat chance when it’s so obvious that you’re trying to pass on the blame for something which was mostly down to you in the first place.

Adding injury to insult, Town and Parish Councils were not given the information that the cuts to central government support grants would be front-loaded (higher cuts in the first of the three years phased reduction) early enough to allow them to set their town and parish Council Tax precepts at a high enough level to soften the hit, something I have challenged Shropshire’s Chief Finance Officer about, first at the February meeting of the Performance Management Scrutiny Committee, and then at a joint meeting of Highley and Cleobury Mortimer Local Joint Committees in Highley’s Severn Centre when Clive Wright, George Candler and James Walton turned up to explain to local residents why Shropshire Council was in such a financial mess. Answers, certainly satisfactory answers, came there none.

Town and parish councils are now faced with the prospect of years more cuts and significantly higher incremental increases in precept just to stay still, because by that time we’ll be sucking the marrow out of the bones of what’s left of our local services.

All of this follows on from the interminable process that some bright spark at Shirehall called the ‘Big Conversation’, when “Shropshire people” were asked where they wanted the austerity cuts to fall. “We don’t” and “nowhere” weren’t options.

You don’t need to be a financial wizard to appreciate the problem facing local communities so when, at an earlier meeting at Shirehall, called to explain the methodology behind the Big Conversation, a bunch of us were asked for our opinions I described it as a choice in which you were damned if you didn’t and doubly damned when you did.

I had discussed the Big Conversation with several local people in the preceding weeks and it was what I’d been told by those people that informed my description. All I had done in that exercise was show them the promotional literature that Shropshire Council had been putting out and asked them the question: “What do you think?” I replied to their response by saying: “No, they’re not joking, actually.”

Whilst there was, understandably, a lot of anger at the Guildhall meeting, many of those there were not helping their case by insisting that parish councils should be left to decide on their own whether and with whom to “cluster” (joint effort, pooled scarce resources) in order to make the decisions upon which their community’s future wellbeing depended. Quite a few of the town councils had already held joint discussions and had prepared a ‘Memorandum of Cooperation’ to present to Shropshire Council. I suspect it will go the way of all other petitions to Shropshire Council, sharing the fate of petitions to central government because if that black door to 10 Downing Street is the black hole at the heart of the galaxy of democratic representation, Shirehall is the sink hole in the bumpy rural farm track of local democratic representation.

I was saddened that the ad hoc clustering demanded by some of the community representatives at the meeting ignores the administrative reality of Local Plans, a point that Clive Wright [Shropshire Council Chief Executive] critically failed to point out to the more vociferous of his audience, ignoring the clues I was frantically trying to get across to him from the vantage point of my front row seat by stage-whispering: “There are one hundred and fifty three civil parishes in Shropshire”. In response he muttered something to the effect that he couldn’t see the point of what I was saying. Well, if he couldn’t the guy sitting immediately behind me could because he is the chair of the Shropshire Association of Local Councils, who said: “That’s precisely the problem!”.

That is just one of the reasons why Clive Wright didn’t help himself – he came unprepared for what should have been the business meeting everyone else thought they’d travelled all the way to Guildhall to attend. It was instead Shropshire Council’s weak attempt to plead for an understanding with the county’s town and parish council chairs and clerks who, unfortunately for Messrs Wright and Pate, were in no mood to be “understanding”.

There were also calls for a referendum “that would allow the people of Shropshire a say in whether they want to pay more Council Tax than the capped ‘allowance’ set by central government”. It was unclear to me whether those calls were, indeed, to give “the people” the chance to refuse to pay more or to give them the chance to agree to dig deeper into pockets already full of holes after successive hits in the name of “austerity”. Clive Wright didn’t ask, he just raised his eyebrows and sort of smiled. He’s going to have to do more than that to earn the “performance related bonus” of £25,000 Malcolm Pate insists he deserves on top of his one hundred grand salary.

Whilst I have utter contempt for a government that is forcing these choices on people who volunteered to serve their communities in order to help provide the services that make life worth living for the people whose interests they thought they’d been charged to protect, there aren’t enough expletives in the book to describe my feelings for an administration that continues not only to support the government making the cuts but who then try to pass responsibility for making those cuts onto town and parish councillors whilst cynically denying them any room for manoeuvre.