8. THE X-FACTOR - the battle for local democracy

(November 20, 2009)

The X-Factor -the battle for grassroots democracy

AS a nation we are rightly known as the mother of democracy but so much of what happens at our local level is clearly weak democracy.
It is based on a local government structure that was last altered slightly 34 years ago and is still based on what preceded it from reforms started in the reign of Queen Victoria.
Currently each Warminster resident is represented by six town councillors per ward so for many people the choice of whom to contact if they have a problem is a little bewildering.
The town council cannot excite people to turn out in their droves and feel involved in the future of their neighbourhoods if it does not take a new modern approach to meeting its duties (which are limited) and taking on a lot more responsibilities whichhave now unfolded with the launch of the Wiltshire Council
This should act as a catalyst for change at the town council - bringing it into this century with a modern approach to business and decision making.

  Twenty First Century Council

  We have a vision of a modern, more democratic Warminster Town Council fit for the 21st Century which, if it is going to really assist the town in going forward, must be based on decision making being taken at the lowest practicable level.
This means that the town council must take a real leap forward in the way it is elected, is run, works with others, and accounts for itself.
It also means that there must be the closest co-operation between the public, town councillors, the Wiltshire councillors and the MP. Sadly, the current town councillors have missed the opportunity of a lifetime to do little more than tinker with what is in place from the last century.
Their proposal to have just two town wards of seven and five councillors each is no progress replacing two wards of six and six has quite rightly been rejected by the Electoral Commission.
Incredibly, they have also voted to extend their term of office to a total six years under the current antiquated (little more than parish council) system suitable for the Vicar of Dibley.
We believe there is a real opportunity to make considerable improvements to the electoral arrangements for the town council which is crucial in creating truly democratic, accountable and meaningful local representation.
This in turn is vital in getting the grassroots, that is, everyone of us involved in, and informed about the future of our community. Our modern approach using the internet positively at almost no cost has shown what can be achieved.
We both recall the amount of work it took to represent one half of a town the size of Warminster.
Last autumn we wrote that we believe there is a strong case for Warminster having seven town council wards consisting of two members each. With an overall electorate of nearly 14,000 this would see parish wards of approximately 2,000 voters each helping achieve good local representation.
Looking at the current electoral register we have ten polling districts in Warminster. Due to housing development over the years there is a huge difference between one with under 600 electors and one with over 2,500 electors.
In addition that largest one is planned to have another large addition of new housing.
We propose new polling areas to level out these discrepancies.
We still believe this is the case but the Electoral Commission has now completed its review. The lack of imagination when the process was started means we will have to wait until their term of office comes to an end to request a stand alone review for the town.
Two Into Three Does Go

We also wrote this last autumn and leave it in our vision so that you can see how our joined up thinking with other chapters could take the town forward in the next decade.
There are to be three single member electoral divisions (commonly called wards), namely, Warminster West, Warminster East and Warminster Broadway for the new unitary Wiltshire Council if current proposals go ahead.
We say these divisions should each comprise two town council wards each electing two members.
There is also an urban-cum-rural ward planned that includes the area from the army quarters to Copheap. In our vision this would also have one town council ward of two councillors.
This would lead to a 14 member town council, an increase of two over the current 12 member town council, we need more town councillors for the work we envisage. Neighbouring Westbury has 15 members for 4,000 fewer inhabitants.
We foresee that with the loss of the district council (which has now happened)and the likelihood that the unitary authority will also be hoping for more from the town council than is currently required of it two additional councillors would be a good and prudent move.
(The town council have voted to take on no new major responsibilities. This leaves the decisions to several local Wiltshire council members shortly to be elected amongst nearly a hundred). The real benefit would be our clearly distinct parts of the town would each have their own pair of councillors to represent their varied concerns and needs.
The names for the seven wards should have their roots in the way local people would identity them.
Warminster Boreham, Warminster Common, Warminster Copheap, Warminster Grovelands, Warminster Portway, Warminster Sambourne and Warminster St. John's make sense to us but is completely open to discussion.

 Close Co-operation

 It is important that local Wiltshire councillors work closely with their town council colleagues. Our proposals would directly link four town councillors to each Wiltshire councillor. The benefits are obvious.
This will encourage them to share the work load of getting the best out of the Wiltshire council for their patch - irrespective of whether they have differing party affiliations or none.
In the future the new Wiltshire Council’s area board will be vitally important to the future of the town.
We cannot afford for its Wiltshire Councillors and town councillors to turn up with a lack of joint purpose and cohesion.
The first sitting of the area board for Warminster, which will take many financial decisions about resources for Warminster, has already been held.
It was quite clear that the town needs to get its act together or the board will be dominated by articulate, wealthy and influential members drawn from the villages.
Each village covered by the area board is entitled to a seat on the board giving the rural area over-representation.
The 7,000 rural population will have 16 seats while the 17,500 people from Warminster will have just one town council member. Although the five unitary councillors representing this area will be the only voting members they will be expected to take account of what the non-voting members say.
We believe this set up gives the rural area undue influence.
Town council representation should be increased to match that from the rural area - perhaps by giving the town council portfolio holders a seat each.
The town council also now needs to build up a strong public rapport with the MP and should be prepared to invite him to a special general meeting at least once a year.

  The role the town councillors play presents a real opportunity for each councillor to specialise on making sure the town council provides the best response to the different needs of the town and its residents.
In earlier chapters we have already outlined our idea for each of them to keep a watching brief on one area of responsibility. Currently it tends to fall on the chairman of the committee to ensure that things progress. We argue that every councillor should pull their weight.
The Mayor and Deputy Mayor will be expected to be more that just figure heads chairing the full council meeting.
They will not only need to carry out their ceremonial and social duties but put their heads together to encourage things like royal visits, enterprise days, international presentations, and everything that 'talks up' Warminster working alongside our proposed economic development officer.
We have deliberately not gone into detail about committee structure and the administration of the town council as we do not want to bore you too much but our opinion has changed now.

  Town Council Makeover

  It has become evident that too much time is wasted discussing the same issues over and over again at one meeting after another at the town council.
Time after time the town clerk has requested the councillors to give her the information she needs to take things forward. How many meetings are needed to decide the design of the headed notepaper was the breaking point and then they left it to her.
We now believe having witnessed first hand and having read minutes of meetings going back more than a year that the committee structure needs a makeover to make efficiency savings not in terms of money but in terms of time and achievement.
Our idea for portfolio holders would see them do the preparation work for reports to the council with the help of the town clerk and her staff and if need be outside advisers.
The five towns working group is now redundant and should be scrapped. The Assembly rooms committee has failed to do anything positive and its demise is urgently needed.
Its main work is the responsibility of the finance and resources committee where the same ground is gone over again and then again at full council.
The planning advisory committee is a statutory requirement but its composition will need to be reviewed after half its membership failed to turn up to its last meeting.
The Transport and Environmental Committee has been struggling to find ways to spend all its budget and there seems little enthusiasm for it. Once again its decisions have to be reviewed and approved by another committee. It should be scrapped.
There is a clear need for a new committee to replace it as the economic recession begins to really bite in Warminster.
The town needs to focus on economic development, leisure and tourism and this is the new committee that needs to be formed.
Its terms of reference would be to draw in investment to these vital areas of activity for the next decade and come up with the ideas to do that.
We have a vision of a town with residents that have councillors that they know living in their local patch and bringing a new community politics feel to the town that is informative and conducive to getting the wealth of ideas and knowledge that we know exists put into practise.

Promoted and published by Steve Dancey of 21 Newport, Warminster, and Paul Macdonald, of 144 Boreham Field, Warminster.

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