Preston needs changing to stay the same…

Preston City Councillor Bill Shannon, (LibDem, Ingol), has set out why he believes the city council requires serious reform if it is to survive in the long-term. In short, Cllr. Shannon believes Preston can no longer remain as a mid-sized unit on the banks of the River Ribble, constrained by the compromise boundaries drawn around it forty-ish years ago.

Whilst disagreeing with Cllr. Shannon on certain subjects I won’t go into here, he’s absolutely right about the future of our city. For Preston to survive, it needs to change, and that means a slow but sure process of amalgamating services as a precursor to full merger with neighbouring administrations.

The fix-and-fudge of local government reform generations ago has left its mark across the country, particularly England where there’s been less change than in either Scotland or Wales. Almost all the local authorities created in the 1970s as a compromise position to the contentious Redcliffe-Maud report remain in place today, their sizes and shapes unmoved despite mammoth changes in population, work-load and responsibilities, employment and the like.

Nobody in Manchester, for example, can fully explain why the council area is such an elongated blob. Of course cynics can suggest plenty of reasons – it kept out largely Tory-leaning bits in Trafford and the semi-rural north, it ensured the Airport and its growth area had to use the “Manchester” name, and so on. Generations away from the map redrawing, the reality on the ground is a population almost unrelated to the official demarcation lines.

Preston, like Manchester, is a city constrained by the flicks of an administrator’s pencil. The city doesn’t stop at the Ribble; people who live to the south are no less “Prestonian”, or less likely to work in Preston, on the grounds of living on the opposite side of an arbitrary border.  The reality of life in this part of Lancashire has seen Preston grow in stature and relevance, and all within the lines of a borough decided upon on a coin-toss in the 1970s.

The financial consequence for the city and its people is profound and dangerous. The only way to safeguard the integrity of Preston, and to ensure the financial security for the services provided for people who live here, is to be bold on the manner in which administrations are formed.

Cllr. Shannon builds a two-step process. Initially councils need to share services, cutting back on duplication which builds up in the everyday processes of providing day-to-day services. As Preston is a two-tier city, served by 57 city councillors and ten County Councillors, there’s plenty of duplication amongst the administrative scaffolding around the representative buildings housed here. Numerous towns and cities across the country are dealing with the Government’s budget slashing by sharing services, and this process can only continue.

The next step, hinted at in Cllr. Shannon’s statement, is a full merger with neighbouring authorities, and is something I’ve always supported. It’s not enough for back-room staff in Preston to work alongside those in the Boroughs of Fylde and South Ribble. Preston is an economic possibility stifled by its status, locked in by suspicious and cynical council leaders in neighbouring towns.

The modern economic reality is too serious for such parochialism. Our city boundaries need to respect that work, study and play in this part of Central Lancashire is no longer respectful of invisible lines drawn on across rivers and along roads. There’s no legitimate reason for South Ribble, Chorley or Fylde being separate when hundreds of thousands of residents already treat Preston as their “hub” for employment, university or college study, or social/piss-up outpost. There’s no legitimate reason why, having cooperated in reducing costs by merging backroom jobs, local councils can’t take the natural step to amalgamate.

My principle is “sphere of influence”. If you live in Tarleton, you’re within the Southport “sphere of influence”, only to be denied by the decision to create Sefton in the 1970s. Preston suffers the same – thousands of potential workers, students, and wealth creators living in Bamber Bridge, Leyland, Chorley, Kirkham, Lytham, all denied by an arbitrary line on a map.

Let’s respect opportunity more than geography. I’ve no time for the types in historic county organisations who wish to reclaim parts of the world which have no existed in forty or more years. I don’t accept calls to “bring back” such places as Middlesex or Westmorland, no more than I do any request to scrap decimal currency.

There’s far too much broken with our democracy – the voting systems at local councils are as close to “corrupt” as you can get, and Scotland is proof of how to resolve that simply by converting to the STV voting system. One other issue is the size and composition of the councils at this level – outdated boundaries drawn for partisan reasons. Cllr. Shannon says we need the “necessary courage” to create a new council, what would inevitably be called “Greater Preston”. I agree with him.

“Preston” was once over  half the size it is now, growing in size only when the separate borough of Fulwood was added in the 1970s. Now the next step has to be taken, not just to correct the problems of Prestonians living far beyond official borders, but to ensure the financial security of Lancashire’s true heart. Anything else is not an option – staying still won’t mean staying the same.

Have passport, will travel, won’t legislate

I’m no fan of Nadine Dorries, the Mid Bedfordshire MP whose time in the Australian jungle on prime-time ITV was meant to teach the basics of abortion law to an audience ignorant of politics via the processes of eating an ostrich anus. (I could at this point say ‘she was lying with cockroaches rather than sitting on the backbenches with them, but let’s not go there….)

Her inappropriate trip abroad rightly saw her punished and stripped of the Party Whip, the significance of which might filter down to her when she’s stopped catching up with her constituent’s emails whilst lazying in a luxury hotel.

And then, from the other side of the Commons, along comes a man to usurp the scourge of abortion clinics and horny teenagers everywhere in the pursuit of passport-stamping.

Hendrick has hit the headlines for all the wrong reasons by way of the hitherto obscure “All Party Parliamentary China Group”, who seem to promote on their website press-releases from other government departments whilst not doing anything themselves. The MP for Preston is called “an officer” of the Group, but one seemingly without portfolio.

Well, the former MEP for Lancashire Central has found something to do without a portfolio, and has found it to the great cost of £43,211. He has spent four months  – FOUR, count them Nadine, you amateur! – away from his Preston constituency, presumably acceptable to his Labour colleagues on Preston Council because they’ve chosen not to say anything against him in public. (At least Nadine’s party colleagues grumbled to the press; Preston’s Labour Group have been silent.)

Oh wait a minute, maybe they have said something about his conduct. Earlier this year they had to grumble and groan because he’d forgotten that his constituency has something called a Guild once-every-twenty-years, calling his decision to wander back to Preston on a whim an embarrassment. An MP since the year 2000, he should by now have been told that it’s tradition for Prestonians to mark the Guild from the start.

There’s nothing on his personal website or the APPCG site which explains why Hendrick has to take so much time away from being an MP for Preston. It’s reminiscent of the worst days of arrogance from parliamentarians, who considered a safe seat (majority 7,733 in 2010, down from 12,268 in 2001) to be a platform from which they launched a totally separate career. At least Nadine said she was leaving her constituency duties to talk about politics (or at least try to, good job ITV editors). What does Mark Hendrick say? Well, from what I can see, nothing.

His predecessor as Labour MP was Audrey Wise, for whom the term ‘firebrand’ might as well have been her given first name. The difference between them is beyond comprehension. From being the MEP for the area, Mark has now become the MP for jollies and junkets, so distant from the Ribble that he almost forgot about the Guild. Is it any wonder that his share of the vote has plummeted in the ten years between first election and the most recent? Voters are aware of his jet-set lifestyle even if he isn’t aware of them.

Even if the ‘zombie review’ does get voted through, Preston’s constituency boundaries give any Labour candidates a headstart. Hendrick could spend four weeks out of every five drinking at Ambassador’s parties without suffering much at all. It’s this complacency and arrogance which marks him out the most. There’s no justification for his absence or the connected costs. There’s no justification for his jetting off to China without any reason or result published on-line. Preston already has very strong relations with China and elsewhere in Eastern Asia through the University of Central Lancashire and from their website it appears Mark Hendrick’s jet-setting adventures have no place in their achievements.

Safe seats foster ‘ownership issues’, and boy does Holidaying Hendrick come across as having those. Preston is not supposed to be the hotel he checks into every quarter whilst clocking up the airmiles. But it seems to be, and that can’t be something on which the local CLP can be silent on for much longer….can it?

cutting Preston’s councillors

The City of Preston has 57 councillors, representing different wards across the borough in either pairs or threes (there are two-member wards and three-member wards elected every year,with each councillor re-elected on a four-year cycle).

Preston’s Liberal Democrat group have proposed that fifty-seven councillors is far to much a number for a city our size, not least because of the existence of the extra layer of politicians we have as a two-tier borough underneath Lancashire County Council. Note “underneath”, not “alongside”. The need to be an independent unitary authority divorced fully from County Hall is a long, long overdue priority.

Anyway, we have too many councillors and something needs to be done. The Coalition has asked the various Boundary Commissions to reduce the number of MPs (as is right and proper); it is now time for the size and composition of Town Halls. Democracy is not best served with numbers of  elected officials increasing exponentially, as the previous law was leading to. Britain does not need so many politicians at any level –  especially not at regional/local level where a combination of unrepresentative geography, central government heavy-handedness, low level (and not so low level) corruption and apathy has neutered local administrations almost to the point where there’s no point having the bits dangling around anymore.

Smaller, more cost effective, more responsible local government is vital – a model which devolves to the streets more than it divides amongst its members. To this end, I have designed a model which reduces the 57 member Preston Council to 36 –  featuring eleven wards with three members each.

In my ideal world, there’ll be proportional representation electing these in addition to the reduction, but the journey of a thousand steps and all that…

My Proposals will reduce Town Hall by over half – from 57 councillors to 36, a move which will reduce the party-political antagonism and log-jamming so often seen at councils all over the country. More consensus from fewer members is the best way to move forward through these economically challenging times.

1) Ashton-on-Ribble

This would take the existing Larches and Ashton wards almost entirely into a merger, with the addition of the Docks (from Riversway) and the properties off Tulketh Road. There is an obvious and clear relationship between the component parts – Larches and Ashton especially – and the Riversway docklands forms a natural partner through shopping and leisure use. The geography makes sense to anyone who knows the area well – it would be a fairly ‘square’ division which respects the communities within whilst excluding only those electors who live near the Lane Ends
shopping area who I deal with later.

2) City Centre

This combines the existing Town Centre ward, in its entirety, with the remaining parts of Riversway – namely Fishergate Hill, Christ Church, and Broadgate. There is a clear continuation of population and interests here, with the existing boundary of the West Coast Main Line easily extended to the Ribble. The relationship between the component parts might not be the strongest, but in terms of geography and resources, including shops, transport and the use of Avenham Park, there is clearly no other solution which wouldn’t be disruptive.

3) Deepdale and Moorbrook

In the north-east of the borough, Deepdale is a 2-member ward neighbouring the two-member St George’s. I would merge these together with the addition of some terraces from Moor Park to enable a more sensible looking border with the A6 Garstang Road. This new ward would enable the whole of the ‘greater Deepdale’ area to be represented together, with so many similar issues and problems shared between them.

4) Fishwick

A simple merger this one – the existing St Matthews and Fishwick wards joined together in one. There is an obvious shared relationship between the two, which lie on both sides of New Hall Lane. From the demographic make up of the majority of residents through housing provision and  future of transport services, Fishwick and St Matthews are natural partners. The corresponding County Council division is exactly the same and I think it’s natural to pair them for a smaller City Council too

5) Fulwood North and Woodplumpton

This new division takes the existing Greyfriars ward, which lies to the west of the A6 and the south of the M55, and pairs it with two civil parishs – Woodplumpton and Broughton. The natural line of communication along the A6-corridor makes this pairing very sensible, with a shared sense of community and with a sensible geographic cohesion between each element. This does have the problem of being unlike all other wards with its rural/urban split, but options are limited in Fulwood and this one is an inventive way to join together parts of Preston in the context of a wider review.

6) Ingol and Cadley

The whole of Cadley joins parts of the existing Ingol, Tulketh and Ashton wards in this new seat, which would see the “Ingol” parts at the south of the Ingol/Tanterton ward attached to Cadley, with the Lytham Road area from Tulketh added too. This new ward is unlike the corresponding County divisions and as such is very different from any predecessor borough ward, too. However there is a clear community link between the three parts, transport links are excellent and with local schools and services shared amongst the new combined electorate it makes sense to bring them together.

7) Lea and Cottam with Tanterton
The civil parish of Lea and Cottam would be combined with the Tanterton part of Ingol in this new ward, which mirrors to some degree the County Council ward Preston West. The Lea/Lea Town bit and Cottam parts are very different in nature, not least because Cottam is largely new build and still growing. There is a geographic connection with Tanterton and the general nature of them all together has a sense which should make the transition to a larger ward largely hassle free.

8) Moor Park and Fulwood South
This is the new division formed by merging Moor Park with College, the ward which takes in what used to be the Sharoe Green hospital and the Preston College campus, and surrounding suburbia. The wards are good neighbours, with Moor Park always the more likely to ‘go Fulwood’ given the chance. It does mean that, once again, Plungington is divided between wards but that’s unavoidable given the nature of surrounding geography.

9)  Ribbleton and Brookfield
Combining Ribbleton with Brookfield follows the County Council division which covers the area, reflecting the shared nature and characteristics of these two wards. There are other options which could be considered – such as bringing in parts of Fishwick from the extreme eastern borders – though this would upset the mathematics and result in unnecessarily complicated splits along roads and through estates. There is an identity amongst those who live in these two wards which should easily work together in a City council context.

10) Rural Parishes
The remaining rural parishes, minus Broughton and Woodplumpton, would be combined into a single, large division, covering all the farming and rural/semi-rural communities of Preston. There is a real independent streak amongst the rural communities which needs to be maintained and cherished: having three councillors dedicated to them in such a way would be a boost to their arguments for economic growth and housing.

11) Sharoe Green and Fulwood Row
This division combines the whole of Sharoe Green with Garrison, which extends in an uneasy looking manner (on paper) through the eastern/north-eastern fringes. This new division is a mix of the new(ish) and potential expansion to come, and has within it the vitally important Royal Preston Hospital (for one reason) and growing industrial estates and employment centres (for other reasons). Bringing them together reflects the nature of the area and echoes the County Council division.

12) St Walburge’s
The rest of Tulketh, incorporating the whole of Lane Ends (including the one segment taken from Ashton) is combined with the whole of University ward. This causes Plungington to be divided between wards (again), though the whole of Plungington Road’s western side would at least be together as one. There is a clear line of communication between the two wards, especially where they currently meet along Fylde Road, Plungington Road and Eldon Street. The Lane Ends/Roebuck relationship is also very strong and would be strengthened further. The name comes from St Walburge’s Church, a good neutral name to balance the competing elements of the new ward.