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.
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.
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 ……….