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TOPIC: What is the role of the modern council?

What is the role of the modern council? 26 Sep 2017 18:20 #3207

Basil Clarke Basil Clarke's Avatar Topic Author
If you missed this interesting Radio 4 documentary, it's a useful look at how the role of borough councils has become greatly circumscribed over the last couple of decades. The programme is focused around a 1960s estate in the suburbs of Birmingham, but the changes that have occurred will be familiar to Enfield residents.

What is the role of the modern council?

The Grenfell Tower tragedy left many people puzzled, angry even, about the role of the modern local authority. Many assumed the responsibility for fire safety in a block of social housing would rest fair and square with the council - the London Borough of Kensington and Chelsea. in fact, an unofficial debate after the fire, revealed a complex tangle of responsibilities between the council and a variety of "arms-length" public bodies and outright commercial organisations.

Adrian Goldberg grew up on a council estate in Birmingham, The city local authority - the biggest in Europe - built and collected the rent on the brand new house the family moved into in 1976. And, every day, Adrian took a council-subsidised bus service to the secondary school run by his local education authority. On the way home he'd drop into his council-run library to pick up some books or take a swim in the council run pool.

All of which makes him an ideal candidate to judge the changing nature of the local council. He returns to Druid's Heath where he was brought up and where his mother still lives in the very same council house. It's an estate of a dozen or so tower blocks along with low-rise housing - in the southern suburbs of Birmingham. in 1976, it was brand new. Adrian helped lay the new lawn in his new garden. For the first time, the family was able to keep a dog.

In 1986, taking part in a BBC initiative called Domesday Reloaded, junior school pupil Ana Coalter praised the underfloor heating at Pleck House - one of the tower blocks on Druid's Heath. She also observed that many of the residents were noisy, the milkman refused to deliver and the lift often broke down.

Today, it remains the only council estate in the city not to have been "modernised." A council paper says two parts of the estate require "major intervention due to the poor quality and layout of existing housing." Regeneration plans have been made. In this programme, Adrian spends 24 hours on Druid's Heath investigating what help and services residents really need and to what extent the council is addressing those needs. Will the planned regeneration transform the lives of existing residents? Is the lift any more reliable in Pleck House than it was in 1986?

Birmingham is the home of the confident municipalism pioneered by Joseph Chamberlain when he was Mayor of Birmingham and which has been copied across the UK and in many parts of the world. It's a spirit that was eloquently summarised by Walsall MP John McShane in the Commons in 1930:

"A young person today lives in a municipal house, and he washes himself ... in municipal water. He rides on a municipal tram or omnibus, and I have no doubt that before long he will be riding in a municipal aeroplane. He walks on a municipal road; he is educated in a municipal school. He reads in a municipal library and he has his sport on a municipal recreation ground. When he is ill he is doctored and nursed in a municipal hospital and when he dies he is buried in a municipal cemetery."

Today, the situation is much more complex.

Presenter: Adrian Goldberg
Producer: Beth Sagar-Fenton
Researcher: Kate Whannel.

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What is the role of the modern council? 27 Sep 2017 09:18 #3210

Interestingly, perhaps ironically, this website and the purpose for its creation is a strong example of how the role of a modern council appears to be to divest itself of responsibility and devolve powers and influence to non-Council parties irrespective of the Council's over-riding duties and responsibilities.

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What is the role of the modern council? 27 Sep 2017 13:03 #3211

David's comment seems almost to be suggesting that divesting itself of responsibility is something which councils seek as a matter of high policy. It's not in their nature to reduce the scope of their activity unless they have a very strong ideological bent to do so. If there is any divesting of responsibility, it comes from central government passing down tasks to local government while constraining their funds.

Although I'm second to none in trumpeting PGC's achievements, I don't think its success has any influence in Enfield's decision making about what it does, if that is what is being suggested.

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What is the role of the modern council? 28 Sep 2017 11:20 #3219

Local Authorities deal with local matters. Central Government doesn't tell them to deal with national matters but not give them the cash to do so.

And PGC most certainly does influence, verging on direct, the decision making of EBC - most notably planning matters, obvioulsy. Lakes Estate has plenty of disgruntled residents that have had their planning decisions deferred to, and ostensibly made by, a 'committee' of just 3 local residents.

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What is the role of the modern council? 28 Sep 2017 13:11 #3220

So why do you think that local government is divesting itself of responsibilities? Nothing to do with reductions in funding? Just a perverse wish to punish users of council services? A desire for a shrunken state? Maybe in Barnet I suppose, but hardly Enfield.

What happens over conservation isn't caused by PGC. PGC is merely a home for conservation issues and a convenient means of private communication (so avoiding masses of emails) which isn't visible to the council so can't possibly influence them. Local conservation groups aren't decision makers, though planning staff might try to avoid the heat by suggesting that they are. Shame on them if they do so.

Conservation areas have a statutory basis and there is a proper process run by the council for establishing and regularly reviewing them which is open to public comment. The planners obligation is to consider whether applications "preserve or enhance" the character of the area. If planning applications run foul of the conservation area character assessments that's not the responsibility of conservation groups. If people would read the assessment before they decided on building work it might be easier for all concerned.

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What is the role of the modern council? 28 Sep 2017 13:32 #3221

As one of the 'members' of the Friends of the Lakes Estate I endorse Colin's point. We are a local advisory group not decision-makers ; our role is to advise the LBE on local conservation issues using the Conservation Area Appraisal as our framework for comments. We are indeed a small group but actively encourage more people living on the Estate to join us ; the only stipulation is a commitment to the principles and practice in the Appraisal. Please contact us at if you would like to help.

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