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Who is actually making those 'local' decisions?

By Western Morning News  |  Posted: September 07, 2012

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When I grow up I don't think I want to be a proper journalist. They spend too much time in boring meetings.

I was in a council meeting for the first time in years this week on what happened to be the nicest day so far in 2012. It was dark in the North Devon District Council chamber, tucked deep inside that municipality's horrible Barnstaple HQ building that should have been demolished at the same time as the public flogging of the architect who designed it.

Here's what I felt during four long excruciating hours in the planning meeting: A) glad to still have a job in newspaper journalism; B) sad that through a tiny opening in a curtain I could see something called sunshine which I hadn't seen for a long time; C) bored; and D) impressed that people actually like this sort of thing.

For the most part our elected representatives do a good job – and mainly I say that because they do it at all. Apart from expenses, these people aren't being paid to sit there listening to reams of red-tape.

My theory is that they've got some kind of extra chromosome in their DNA. One day, doctors will be able to say to some baby's parents: "Your child has the 'municipal chromosome' – they should study to become a civic leader. They might even become prime minister."

As a journalist one finds oneself being a conduit through which citizens feel they can complain about councillors and other elected representatives. Which is fine – it's partly what we're here for.

But I will say this: mostly these complaints take an "us-against-them" line in which the aggrieved person/group feels there is some kind of dodgy business going on behind closed doors. Conspiracy theories abound – and people declare: "They're not working for the community. A stitch-up is going on. They're out for themselves."

I find that interesting because I believe 999 out of 1,000 elected representatives are there to do the best they can for their communities. Probably because some inner DNA propels them to do it. And most of them work hard at the unpaid and often boring work.

What I do think happens is entrenchment.

Making decisions is tough. We all know that. And often municipal decisions are a lot tougher than the ones we make in our own lives. Someone, somewhere, is going to be fed up, indignant, or downright angry.

So councillors bond together in political groups and other alliances. The tougher the decision, the tougher the fight, the more aggressive their defensive position becomes. Walls go up. People look at these ramparts and say: "They are up to something behind those closed doors."

I have known these little cabals become far too exclusive. In my own neck of the woods a previous regime at our district council was nothing but shocking in the manner in which it went about its business.

But as I say – I take my hat off to most elected representatives. I also have respect for my journalistic colleagues who report on their deeds with the fortitude to keep peering over the ramparts.

What was interesting for me this week re-entering a council chamber after so many years was the way things have changed. On the positive side, some of the pomposity had gone. It was nice to hear the councillors calling each other by their Christian names.

The biggest difference was in the much tighter bondage caused by red tape. Just under 40 years ago when I started covering planning meetings, councillors would say what they wanted – and if they said it forcefully or passionately enough they'd take the rest with them and a decision would be made that was 100 per cent local.

Now they are constantly reminded by professional managers what parameters they can, or cannot, base their decisions on. In other words, the foundations of major decision making have been constructed at Whitehall or even Cabinet level. Councillors who ignore these parameters will simply see their decisions overturned at appeal. To the great cost of local taxpayers.

Given the Government's announcement on Wednesday that planning controls are to be altered in favour of more development – I dread to think what that will mean for our beloved countryside.

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