Discussions are currently in progress about creating a single new council in East Kent, which would bring together Canterbury, Thanet, Dover and Shepway councils into one large mega-council. Beneath the new mega-council there would be town councils and parish councils, so Canterbury, Whitstable and Herne Bay could all get their own councils, though these would have limited powers.
What does this mean? And should it be welcomed by local people? The proposal for a single new council from the four East Kent districts presents local people and councillors with a hugely important decision. At the same time this could be a chance to get a town council for Canterbury, in which local concerns and local priorities could be addressed.
If the change takes place, it will radically affect the pattern of local democracy. Among those who have expressed concern are the Campaign for Democracy in Canterbury District (CDCD) and the Canterbury Society. Together they jointly hosted a public meeting in November 2016, at which local people were invited to put forward questions and concerns to be forwarded to Local Partnerships, the organisation which has been working on the plans with the councils involved. It was good to see that the concerns expressed by local people are referred to in the ‘Strategic Case’ now being discussed.
However, CDCD believes that there are still problems because the current proposals:
- Do not adequately address the issue of the democratic deficit which would be created by a merged council
- Fail to include an assessment of the costs or structure of the town and parish councils
- Do not tell us what powers and functions would be devolved to the town and parish councils and which would remain with the Kent County Council
- Could produce a cumbersome three-tier structure for East Kent which could leave local residents confused about which tier is responsible for what
- Do not make it clear whether the new mega-council will use the committee system or concentrate power in a small executive
- Appear to conceive of councils simply as services-commissioning bodies rather than as democratically accountable and politically important representative bodies.
CDCD’s greatest concern is the potential ‘democratic deficit’ which could follow from a merger of the four councils. We do not yet know where the mega-council and the council services would be based, but it is likely that council offices would be located further from the people they serve than is currently the case.
The danger is that a merger would be liable to decrease democratic accountability by:
- greatly increasing the number of electors represented by each councillor
- making local government geographically more remote from most people
- making it more difficult for local residents to attend meetings in order to raise matters of concern
- making it harder for people to go to council offices if they encountered problems with services
It is important that local people engage with this debate and do what they can to ensure that local government in East Kent is as democratic as possible.
Jan Pahl, Chair of the Canterbury Society