Wednesday, March 07, 2007


Area Board frustrations

I went to the Area Board last night - as ever a great place to meet local people and hear about the issues affecting the people of Prestwich. It was doubly interesting last night because it took place at Butterstile Primary School, where I am a Governor. It was great to see all the displays in the school hall and see once again that the school is being used as a focal point for other community events.

Last night’s Area Board was a huge disappointment though in terms of the plans we can make for road repairs in Prestwich. It is the job of the Area Board to select which roads are put forward for repair, and last night the Council officer responsible for highways presented the Board with a list of the 12 most needy roads for them to select from (including Spring Vale, the cause of resident communications recently).

Alongside the name of the road were high-level cost estimates for the repairs to footpaths and roadways, with the total amount needed to replenish all 12 (remember that these weren’t the only 12 roads in Prestwich needing repairing – just the worst 12) being around £500,000. The Labour Council has allocated just £130,000 for the year ahead for Prestwich road repairs, which is barely a quarter of the amount needed.

I think this is a disgrace, and is symptomatic of the catastrophic funding difficulties that Bury Council has got itself into under Labour control. We don’t get enough money from central government, and what we do get is often prioritised wrongly on gimmicks and short term vote-winners. Liberal Democrats in favour of sustainable solutions and thought-out policies that reflect our core beliefs are frustrated at every turn.

Half of the roads on the list last night were also on the list last year, but no money was forthcoming then, just as now.

The majority of local people don’t expect much from the Council. Their bins emptied, their streets clean, and their roads safe. Obviously there are exceptions, and there are complicated cases where people’s needs are more difficult to meet. We need to meet the needs of everyone. But there needs to be honesty and dialogue with local people about what this means to services and to taxes. When we fail to provide the basic services – when we are forced to choose which of our streets to leave dangerous and unpleasant – we are letting down every one of our residents. Even these basic expectations aren’t met, and nobody quite seems to know why.

At the moment there is no dialogue with local people. Taxes go up, services get cut, and nobody knows why because decisions are made centrally and local communities have absolutely no power.

Local community politicians like the Councillors on the Area Board need more than just the power to pick streets at random from a list. They need to control the budgets for their areas, to engage with local residents about their priorities, and to engage in honest dialogue about tough choices. At the moment that isn’t happening, and it’s no wonder people aren’t engaged in the political process.

At the moment, plans put forward by Bury Labour appear to down-grade Area Boards even more. Where they should be given more power to decide how local money is spent and which local needs are prioritised, they are being given less. More powers are being squeezed from locally elected politicians towards central bodies or unelected groups. This needs to be stopped.

Liberal Democrats are the true champions of localism. We are the only party advocating real power for local communities – power devolved from central bureaucracies and into the hands of local communities. We trust local people to engage in dialogue, and want to help communities solve their own problems. We don’t just hand down an inadequate sum of money for road repairs after a budget decided in another place decreed that priorities lay elsewhere, with no explanation.

We mightn’t be able to replace every needy road, but at least people would know why, and would have a say in the matter. At the moment this isn’t happening, and it should change.


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