On the wall of Berwick’s Wallace Green Council Offices is the reminder that it was the home of a ‘Rural District Council’ a former sanitary district.
In 1894 an act of Parliament set up Rural and Urban District Councils, they were a second tier of local government that sat under a County, with budgets, they had education, planning powers, public consultation and public health that encompassed and included Parishes. If the population rose above 25,000 each District had its own stipendiary magistrate.
They had perpetual succession on three year election terms with larger Urban Districts being able to apply to become Municipal Boroughs with most running from 1894 to 1974 when they were encompassed into two tier or single tier local government at that time.
Northumberland Tories now want to go back to this version of the past with their community councils. Five new levels of government, competing with parishes and town council's, all with unclear planning roles.
In Northumberland, since 1974, District and Borough Councils. particularly in Rural areas had well embedded Parish Council sitting below them dealing with a variety of functions, including public engagement and consultation at a local level, most have a planning committee that drives much of the communication with the public and in 2008 the whole county became ‘Parished’ on the formation of a single unitary Council for the whole County.
The link between the Parishes and the Single Unitary has been hardened up since 2008 and the last Labour Administration, 2013 -2017 developed a much closer bond with Parishes meeting Local Services officers to help bring forward and in some case assist to fund progressive infrastructure at a local level that required the larger workforce of the single unitary to help a Parish deliver its projects.
Now Northumberland Tories want to rip up working relationships, partnerships that are delivering more localised services in order to, one thinks, prepare the ground for the privatisation of council services. This was on the table in 2013 up to the formation of the Labour administration. Labour stopped it dead. The Tories now want to revive privatisation of council services and they'll use the 'community council's' to do this bypassing town and parish councils.
The Tory plan is to set up of five Community Councils who will carry the functions of Rural and Urban District Councils, local budgets and budget setting, planning powers, public consultation, public health and petitions but not education as that is now funded entirely from central government.
They'll leave County Hall to function as a ceremonial county hub, removing the focus of change and discord away from its crumbling exterior. Imagine a building designed for thousands of staff empty bar Councillors 'entertaining'.
The Parish leaders across Northumberland are rightly incensed at being sidelined from a second tier functional and ceremonial provider of services into third tier Victorian parishes looking after the ‘poor law’ provisions of 1894.
Parish Councillor Ken Ellis from Blyth said “ Since 2013 we have enjoyed a good working relationship with the County Council and have jointly delivered a number of excellent projects that have begun to transform the Parish into a much softer and prettier place than its economic heavy industrial past had left our town in.” “ I’m concerned that being pushed down in status by Northumberland Conservatives as a Council will make it much harder to deliver public engagement and projects that improve life locally that fully cross the age gap, such as through music and the arts, the Community Councils with their massive budgets may take those functions and expose them to Government cuts.” I thought we had moved on from that process”.