Blog: We need real, honest and representative feedback from local people, not a Conservative echo chamber.

October 27, 2020 3:27 PM
By Zoe Franklin

I read the recent Get Surrey article about Surrey County Council's idea to set up community networks across Surrey to aid 'closer resident engagement' with interest. Personally, I am committed to empowering local decision making and enabling local people to get more involved with the decisions made that impact on their communities and lives. However, I am unconvinced that this new idea is really about enabling the engagement it says it is. Let me explain why...

Surrey's 11 Districts/BoroughsThis community network idea comes at a time that Surrey has been forced to admit that it has wasted £250k on a report preparing for a unitary bid it was then told it couldn't submit and, as a result of commissioning this report, also forced Surrey's 11 district councils to spend money on producing a counter-report. Surrey's Conservative leader, Tim Oliver, has also admitted that in spite of this he still takes the view that a single monster-unitary for Surrey is the right approach and that his Conservatives will continue to push for that to happen without consulting the people who will have to pay for it - local taxpayers.

If Surrey's Conservatives really believed in bringing decision-making closer to local people they wouldn't be trying to force through their plan of a single monster-authority for Surrey, they would be working instead to find a way to find the financial savings needed whilst still keeping local connections strong - just like our Lib Dem three-unitary model for Surrey seeks to do.

Similarly, if Surrey's Conservatives were listening to local people like they say they want to, they would not be

  • pursing the single authority model - across Surrey, there has been strong opposition from residents, Parish and town councils as well as Surrey elected district councillors across all poltiical persuasions
  • continuing with the unpopular and potentially dangerous cuts to the local Fire Service
  • approving proposals to frack in the Surrey Hills

I could go on!

Surrey also failed to elaborate on how the 'community networks' would work in practice at the meeting where they were approved by the Conservative majority who were not in 'explaining' mode. There are many questions that need answering:

  • How would representatives on these 'networks' be chosen?
  • How would it be ensured that communities that historically find it more difficult to find residents to be in community leadership roles would not be disadvantaged?
  • What would their remit be?
  • How would that remit intersect with that of existing public bodies for example borough councils, residents associations, etc?
  • What they did specify was that they would be planning 30 such networks across Surrey - to put that into context that's 1 for every 40,000 of Surrey's 1.2 million residents which doesn't seem very local to me!
  • Will the people on these networks receive a stipend/salary? If so how much?
  • Local councillors are accountable to the people who elect them. Who will the Local Community Network members be accountable to?
  • Will these people be required to sign up to the Nolan Principles of Public Life, as all current elected representatives must do in order to ensure fairness and democratic outcomes?

From the list of outstanding questions, I am particularly concerned about how representatives to the panels will be chosen. We already have a positive way of choosing community representatives and that's local elections (even though Lib Dems would prefer a more democratic electoral system than the First-Past-The-Post one currently in use). Is the community network idea from Surrey's Conservative County Councillors a thinly veiled attempt to ensure that the 'right' type of people are feeding back to them on behalf of local communities? The 'right' type of person is most like people who are (Conservatives) like them? How can we ensure that all our communities will be represented - those in social housing, those with ethnic backgrounds, those from the LGBTQ community? All contribute to society in some way and all voices must be included in local decision-making.

To my mind, there's a much more sensible approach that could be taken - support and empower Surrey's over 550 district and county councillors, and many more parish and town councillors to do their role even better.

Most of these community leaders have been elected by their communities to serve and represent their views and to work to make their communities even better. If they were properly supported to know how to engage even more effectively with the people they represent through ward panels, visiting existing residents groups, running ward surgeries, etc, and then reflected on what they've learnt at those meetings and acted upon it, local people would get the involvement that they want and deserve. What is also needed is a commitment from local councils to work with councillors, regardless of party, to enable community-driven action to succeed wherever possible.

Residents don't want another layer of local government bureaucracy.

Let's do something radical - let's make the current set up really work for local people and not try to bypass it with schemes far more likely to parrot back what Tim Oliver and his Conservatives colleagues want to hear than to actually provide real, honest and representative feedback from local people.

27th October 2020

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