Local News

Councillor voices support for unitary authority

Wednesday 6 January 2021

Newly independent county councillor Andrew Stevenson has issued a statement supporting the abolition of East Herts District Council.

In his statement, Cllr.Stevenson says that "the middle tier of councils has become increasingly problematic and the case for its abolition is now compelling", adding "There are too many councils, too many bureaucratic processes and too many councillors tripping over each other"

Cllr.Stevenson also criticises beaurocracy and "sclerotic decision-making" at County Hall, as well as processes that "evade genuine scritiny".

"The practice of portfolio appointments being made by a selected leader leads to a culture of personality not competence and closed predetermined not open-minded decision making", says the Cllr.Stevenson, continuing "It is time to change to a simpler and more effective system of local government that genuinely serves the local community".

Cllr.Stevenson recently resigned from the local Conservative Party after he was deselected. He was first elected to represent Hertford's All Saints Ward in  2013, and was relected in 2017. His full statement is shown below.

WHY EAST HERTS DISTRICT COUNCIL SHOULD BE ABOLISHED

Local government has become sclerotic. There are too many councils, too many bureaucratic processes and too many councillors tripping over each other. There is a tendency to maintain the status quo vested interest, which does not always serve the community, and this has led to some spectacularly bad decisions that cause years of problems. The middle tier of councils has become increasingly problematic and the case for its abolition is now compelling.

My case is supported by three local examples where bad decisions have led to issues, I have become involved with through my county councillor role. In each of these cases the lack of any strategic planning has been at the root of the problems.

INCLUDING BENGEO FIELD IN THE LOCAL PLAN

EHDC included Bengeo Field in its local plan. This term itself evidences confusion as there are local plans for building developments (EHDC), minerals development (HCC), highways (HCC) education (NATIONAL) with different councils and agencies and no strategic plan. This decision was misguided because there was a separate minerals plan that was undetermined and building development would have required the quarry to have been completed first. This gave needless ammunition to the developers who were then able to argue to the planning inspector that because it was in the "local plan" that the quarry must be developed to meet the local plan. EHDC were of no help to the local community here. However but thanks to the strong Stop Bengeo Quarry campaign and a clear-thinking mineral planning officer at HCC it was possible to unravel this and focus on landscape value to the community evidenced by the Neighbourhood Plan and this won the day with the planning inspector

APPROVING LIBERTY RISE DEVELOPMENT ON THE OLD POLICE STATION SITE

One might have thought that as this site was owned by the public sector that the planning would have been exemplary. Quite the reverse. It has become standard practice for developers to appeal decisions they do not like and to erode early decisions. This was a bad decision by EHDC in any event because it should have been an opportunity to provide extra space for an oversubscribed local primary school - but the failure to integrate building development planning with educational and highways planning has led to a parking nightmare and exceedingly difficult situation for the school. EHDC failed to appeal the developers modified plan which made matters even worse and there seem to have been no sensible mitigations provided for the community even through S106 – which are contracts negotiated by EHDC

RUSH GREEN ROUNDABOUT APPROVAL OF McDONALDS

The planning decision granted by EHDC ignored highway engineering concerns and failed to forsee growth in traffic volumes. The BP petrol station was there first and a sensible joined up decision would have required adequate parking and access roads and concluded that there was not enough space. Again, the absence of strategic planning has created a very difficult problem even to mitigate. The police and local highways officers have worked hard to find mitigations for the increasingly dangerous problem of traffic queueing illegally on the clearway but at the end of the day the site is simply too small for the volume of traffic it attracts. Not surprising as the A414 is a main east-west artery, Hertford bypass plans have been shelved due to lack of local support and the A10 with housing growth in Harlow and the new new town Gilston will only make matters worse.

CONCLUSIONS

I have found from my time as a County Councillor that sclerotic decision-making processes pervade the whole of local government. Abolishing the District Council would be a start but not the only requirement. To my initial bemusement at the County Council I found there to be at least seven stages for each decision to go through and sometimes many more. Most of these stages are private with key decisions not even open to all elected councillors. Checks and balances are right but Ming Dynasty type sclerosis creates confusion and bad decision making. The secretive nature of many of the stages is not transparent and evades genuine scrutiny. The private sector could not survive in this way but public sector jobs rarely depend on performance outcomes. The practice of portfolio appointments being made by a selected leader leads to a culture of personality not competence and closed predetermined not open-minded decision making. Much of local government seems to me to have become historic Theatre. From the mayor with the chain to HCC cabinet and council there is more theatre than substance when surely we need open and transparent decision making more than ever?

THE FUTURE

Those who wish to defend the status quo will cite the need for local planning decisions. But this is a fallacy because in practice the decisions are made by non-local councillors in any event. In fact, the rise of Neighbourhood Plan activity has created a new grass roots that is a democratic voice open to all that is becoming stronger and clearer to speak up for the local community in a way that lower tier councils do not. All quasi-judicial planning processes and decisions need genuine strategic oversight and would be better located within a single Hertfordshire Council. Modern communications technology means that there is no need for the lower tiers and mostly the public are bemused to fine that there is more than one council! The multiple tiers are very costly, wasteful of human resource and as I have show lead to some outstandingly bad planning decision.

In all the above I am not criticising any individuals and there are some good people doing their best within their lights under a difficult and outdated system. However, It is time to change to a simpler and more effective system of local government that genuinely serves the local community.

We need a new system of local government that is more democratic, simpler, and more effective as we go forward into 2021 with new challenges. My resignation from the Conservative party enables me to speak out on these issues unfettered by party line constraints of fear of vested interest reactions. I speak more directly as a resident and business owner who has lived and worked in Hertford for more than 30 years and then had the experience of being a county councillor.

The overriding manifesto commitment of all political parties for the local elections in May 2021 should be genuine local government reform. A debate on what this should be should be open and transparent and not distorted by vested interests.

:: Cllr Andrew Stevenson, Independent County Councillor for Hertford, All Saints

A recent poll in the county by Survation suggests that 80% of people in the area believe they would be better served by local councils rather than a county wide unitary authority. Some 76% were concerned that their voice may not be heard by a county wide authority.

Hertford is represented by two councillors on the County Council. The town also has ten councillors on East Herts District Council.

The next County Council elections are scheduled to take place on Thursday 6th May 2021. 


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