February 2022 Denise Bickley
An open letter to anybody interested [unsent unfortunately]
In May 2019 I stood as a councillor, full of enthusiasm and naivety, wanting to make a difference for the environment in East Devon. This was on the back of gaining a voice through setting up Sidmouth Plastic Warriors. I found it odd that to get anything done I had to go to the council and get approval for things so I thought I’d try and cut out the middle man and get stuff done myself.
I knew that the role involved other areas that were outside of my interest, but felt that as long as I came at it from speaking for the environment, everything else would work out. I aligned myself with other people who have become firm friends and I am full of admiration for the work and commitment they put in. They also ran as councillors not for any personal gain, but usually for a background story of some way that the previous administration or decisions had affected their own lives and got them interested in local politics. All are diligent in ensuring everything they do is above board, transparent and follow the 7 Nolan Principles of public life. All of us in the administration are ‘left of centre’, put people before profit, put the environment before developers and we have been busy working on a very green council plan, as befits a council in these times of climate emergency.
Unfortunately, before coming a councillor I would probably have been much like the other residents of East Devon. Speak out on Facebook or Twitter, lump all the councils together as ‘The Council’, write off decisions taken that I didn’t like and question their motivation. Now, however, I will not do that as I know differently. I know how hard my colleagues in the Democratic Alliance, the current administration, work. I know the toll it has taken on many of them – their mental health, their home situations, their work. I know how hard so many of the employees of the council work – some seem tireless and I am so full of admiration.
I know that, like my colleagues, I am never switched off. If I don’t keep up with my emails, I am inundated, so I feel the need to check them very regularly. Even then, I know some emails slip through the cracks unanswered, and the guilt weighs heavy. Couple this with working, running a community environment group and the small matter of having a family, and the workload is overwhelming some days. My problem I know – it was my decision – but being a councillor should be open to everybody, whatever their situation otherwise we end up with a very narrow demographic which is not great for democracy.
I know how different councils are responsible for different things. As much as I’d like us to get rid of potholes, or replace the bus stops, or make our town pedestrian friendly for instance, I know that that is Devon County Council’s role. I know that there is not one ‘The Council’ to blame for everything, and I also know that a lot is beyond any of the local councils remit and is central government.
I also know how short of money local councils are. District councils have statutory duties (organizing elections, planning and development management, building control, housing, homelessness prevention, environmental health, waste collection and recycling, street cleansing, food safety and water sampling, health safety and licensing, and council tax and rates collection). They also carry out discretionary services such as managing car parks, promoting economic development, culture and events, some recreation and leisure facilities, providing some grants, maintaining some parks and gardens, and public toilets. Discretionary of course means NOT statutory, but provided where possible.
Over the last decade, the council has lost 60% of the funding it used to receive from central government. Remember that all council tax gets handed over, and we get a bit back. For every £1 of council tax you pay, EDDC get 7 pence, (7%), so from the Average Band D house of £151.78 per month, EDDC get £10.62, with just £2.76 going to waste and recycling for example. This is not a local decision – this is decided by central Government.
So from this EDDC are meant to cover all the statutory duties, plus as many of the discretionary ones as possible. All this with going into the covid pandemic with a shortfall in the budget.
The last thing we wanted to do was to go bankrupt, as some councils have done (https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-57720900). Top it off with the fact that EDDC’s council tax had been kept very low for years by the previous administration, without investment (the toilets have not been improved for years, and car parking charges have not gone up for 8 years). It would be the easiest choice to drop the discretionary services of toilets and non-profitable car parks completely.
However, our administration dug in, worked out ways of saving the toilets plus investing in them (but making sure they were in the right place and up to the right standard). We have spent months trying to work out a system where car parks income is maximised so that we are ‘sweating our assets’ but not penalising local residents, by ensuring that a monthly payment permit will prove much more reasonable to all (and only available to EDDC council tax payers). We are confident that our beautiful towns can sustain tourist visitors at a higher rate – as we see from the privately owned car parks who already charge the higher rate at Sidmouth and have a queue. We have also kept the £2 per day charge for 5 months of the year to encourage people to our towns when footfall is lower. We have worked with officers and have had cross-party support for this.
The weird thing is though, that I am discovering now that I am so exhausted and negative about all of it that I may just quit, is that nobody wants to know why these decisions are taken. They don’t want to know about the lack of money, or the pandemic meaning that the council has lost millions of pounds through car parking, or that toilets are not up to standard and are in the wrong places. Everybody is an expert. Everybody has an opinion. But very few people care enough to actually do something about it.
My future as a councillor is in the balance. I’m honestly not looking for reassurances from friends or anybody else (or negative comments either thanks) – this is a personal decision. I think being a councillor is like being a bar tender – it is a job that everybody should do for a while to walk in the footsteps, and get a real feel for how it works. Only then can you really know what it is like to receive hideous personal comments, rudeness, apathy, frustration that what you want to achieve is unaffordable/impossible/someone else doesn’t want it to happen so obstructs it.
But it’s probably easier for members of the public to just carry on being negative, assume they know best, and blame councillors.