Great divides? Community boundaries – Mean a lot, mean a little?

I have often pondered on boundaries especially those associated with local government. What forms a boundary, why was it chosen and who chose it?

Here are two boundaries close to my Lydiate home. One is with Maghull and the other with Aughton:-

Maghull Brook - On the left Lydiate (and me) - on the right Maghull.

Maghull Brook – On the left Lydiate (and me) – on the right Maghull.

Sudell Brook - On the left Lydiate - on the right Aughton

Sudell Brook – On the left Lydiate – on the right Aughton

In both cases the boundary is obviously a stream and this can often be the case with local government boundaries where watercourses have been chosen to divide communities up.

The boundary between Maghull and Lydiate simply divides the two Civil Parishes of Lydiate and Maghull and the only real obvious difference this creates is the amount of Council tax or Precept that the residents of these two communities pay to either Lydiate Parish Council or Maghull Town Council. Both Civil Parishes are in Sefton Borough and both are a part of the Liverpool City Region/Merseyside.

The Lydiate – Aughton boundary is of far greater significance though as it is all but an invisible barrier rather than a boundary because Aughton Civil Parish is in West Lancashire Borough and the County of Lancashire. The world does not look any different on either side of Sudell Brook but in fact it is as the Sefton Borough – West Lancashire boundary has, since 1974, become a local government barrier. Why you can almost hear senior council officers saying ‘we are a Metropolitan Borough [Sefton] and they are just a County’ and of course the reverse will apply too. Sadly, whilst I may well be exaggerating here the reality is that since 1974, in local government terms, Sefton’s communities and those in West Lancashire have mainly planned for their futures in glorious isolation – a great divide indeed.

Considering the massive boundary between West Lancashire and Sefton you would think there would be a huge amount of cross-border co-operation and planning for the joint communities. You would think so but I assure you there is not.

I recall during my time as Leader of Sefton Council I went to Ormskirk to meet the Leader of West Lancs Council to try to kick-start closer working relationships but it seems that those who followed us have not developed things further. What sense does separate transport planning in the two Boroughs make? Environmental protection issues must be similar surely? Health issues surely do not stop at a stream do they? Why we even have an NHS Hospital Trust on split between Southport and Ormskirk either side of the great divide.

I recall when Sefton and West Councils were planning for building on the Green Belt and on the highest grade of agricultural land in England that I started to ask questions about how closely the two two planning departments were sharing and consulting each other. The answers I got were hardly an example of close cooperation in my eyes and I wondered if the contact was little more that phone calls with one side saying ‘we are doing X’, ‘well we are doing y’, ‘OK speak again next year maybe’.

The bottom line is that Merseyside and Lancashire are very different worlds in local government terms. Is this something that is hammered into local government officers from an early age akin to religious indoctrination? Whatever the case it is very much to the disadvantage of communities which are near to a significant local government boundary in my view.

A further thought on Sefton’s declining Governance

Maghull, Lydiate and Aintree Village are positively being victimised by Sefton Council under Labour these days.

You see the former payments the Borough Council made to their respective Parish Councils to compensate for the fact that Sefton raises the same Council tax in those communities but provides little or nothing in the way of parks and gardens (the Parish Councils provide them) have been stopped.

The effect of this is that those communities are being ripped off because the money they pay to Sefton for park and gardens is being spent elsewhere in the Borough!

Talk about rowing in the opposite direction to the one the Boundary Commission requested!

Sefton Council – Its local governance is getting worse not better!

Another important matter discussed at the recent meeting of Sefton Council was the future of our strange Borough which was seemingly thrown together, without much logic, as a collection of disparate and diverse communities to the north of Liverpool in 1974.

Frankly, the Borough has never sat well with most people and it is well know that the good people of Southport find it hard to believe that the neighbouring areas that they have most in common with i.e. West Lancs and Preston have been in a different County since 1974. Lydiate is another example of a community surrounded on 3 sides by Lancashire but only connected in local government terms to Merseyside. One wonders what on earth was going through the minds of the great and the good who created Sefton Borough.

The Boundary Commission reviewed Sefton in 1997 and it recognised the Borough’s geographical/local governance problems and said:-

There are a range of democratic and management arrangements that could be used to address the problem. If these changes are to succeed, they must provide a shared agenda for the Council and those who have been campaigning for Southport to leave Sefton.

AND

The encouragement of a culture with Sefton Council which recognises the distinctiveness and importance of Southport and other parts of the borough is needed. We have seen little evidence that Sefton Council as a whole has this kind of decentralised approach and thinking. This is reflected in the way in which residents across the borough feel that other areas receive more favourable treatment – which will only change if the Council behaves in a different way.

As a consequence of such independent criticism, which effectively backed up what many residents felt, Sefton embarked on structural changes. This coincided with me being elected as a Sefton Councillor in 1999 and subsequently becoming its Leader in the early 2000’s for 7 years. Coming from a part of the Borough that, like Southport, felt that Sefton did not serve it well I was keen to move the decentralisation agenda forward.

Bootle Mafia?

My part of the Borough is its East Parishes (Maghull, Melling, Lydiate, Aintree Village, Lunt & Sefton Villages) and I was the first Leader of the Council not to come from either Bootle or Southport, indeed I still am as the leadership of the Borough is now firmly a Bootle one again. On one level the fact that the present Labour leadership of the Borough is called the Bootle Mafia in some quarters is amusing but sadly it has a hard edge to it as well as this Bootle-centric leadership has simply highlighted once again Sefton’s geographical governance problems.

Progress made in empowering communities

But back to how the Council tried to address the criticisms of the Boundary Commission of 1997. The big changes were:-

* the setting up of Area Committees which were intended to get decision making done at the lowest possible level within recognisable communities and groups of communities that had a commonality of interest. Originally there were 9 of these – 3 in Southport, 3 in the central part of the Borough and 3 in Bootle. However, it soon became apparent to the people of Southport that they could more effectively manage and govern their communities with just one Area Committee and a vote was held across Southport which confirmed this view. The middle part of the Borough, where the communities are particularly diverse, continued with 3 Area Committees as did Bootle and all worked reasonably well, although I was always of the view that more decisions needed to be made at Area Committee level myself. However, the Council was balanced with no one party in control so, with Labour generally being hostile to more decentralisation and the Tories lukewarm on the matter, no significant further devolvement in decision making was made.

* the establishment of a Cabinet system of governance to take strategic decisions affecting the whole Borough went hand in hand with the establishment of Area Committees. From when the Cabinet was set up until 2012 it had members on it from all 3 major political parties and in turn they represented a good cross section of Sefton’s diverse communities. I know that the cabinet system of local governance has its critics but from my perspective, whilst I was a member of it, it worked reasonably well. However, since 2012 all the members are Labour and they all represent wards in the Bootle Constituency, so the limitations of the cabinet system have been starkly brought to the surface.

Area Committees get the chop under Labour

Moving forward to 2012, Labour wins control of the Council and the decentralisation train hits the buffers. They not only reduce the number of Area Committees to just 3 across the whole Borough but they don’t even put this to the people of Bootle and Sefton Central to vote upon as had previously happened in Southport. The heavy foot of socialist central control was firmly stamped down. In the East Parishes, Formby and Crosby folks were up in arms but Labour would not listen. We now have a frankly ludicrous conference once every 3 months, which replaces the by-monthly meetings of the 3 former Area Committees. 27 Borough and 10 Parish Councillors sit on the new Area Committee and it is a nightmare for the public to access and sensibly engage with.

Governance – now worse than in Boundary Commission’s damning 1997 report

So Sefton, having made some progress towards decentralisation has significantly rowed back on this under Labour. With our all Bootle, all Labour Cabinet running the show the two other Parliamentary Constituencies that make up the Borough (Sefton Central and Southport) and the councillors elected to serve in them effectively have no say in how Sefton is run! In other words the governance of the Borough is worse now, in terms of it being representative of our diverse communities, than when the Boundary Commission made its 1997 report!

Southport people still feel local governance is wrong and inappropriate but so do folks in the more remote parts of Sefton like Melling and Hightown for example. Sadly, Labour decided not to address these concerns last Thursday but to continue to issue socialist edicts from Bootle Town Hall and if the residents of the Borough don’t like it then they know where they can ……….