Walk along any road in Ipswich and the street lamps you see lighting the tarmac are the responsibility of Suffolk County Council. Yet the paths that run between roads, to parks and linking housing estates are lit by lamps owned and operated by Ipswich Borough Council. It’s an astoundingly boring fact and for that reason very few people know it, which is a good thing. Until one of the lamps blows a bulb, at which point reporting the fault becomes a bit of a palaver. It is one of dozens of silly inconsistencies that make councils confusing to the rest of us. Your rubbish is collected by the Borough Council but disposed of by the County. Your Council Tax is set in large part by the County but collected by the Borough. If you are building a block of flats, it is the Borough that gives you planning permission, but if it is a school, it is the County. Libraries are the responsibility of the County but Ipswich Museum is the property of the Borough.
That is not the end of the muddle. For there are some things that both authorities do: both the County and Borough do economic development; both County and Borough give out grants to community and cultural organisations; both County and Borough seek to improve tourism. And that is before you get on to the weird inconsistencies. Why should it be that the Borough does environmental and noise protection, but if you have a trading standards problem you would need to turn to the County.
The whole caboodle is a mess. It is partly why local government inspires little interest and confidence in local people, the same who councils are supposed to represent. It’s an irony I’ve talked about before – that the things people raise with me most often on the doorstep are hyper-local issues, like potholes, and yet when it comes to voting for the people who can actually do something about it, by a ratio of three to one, they stay at home. To most people, councils are at best distant and at worst dictatorial – known only for parking tickets and saying no to things.
This is a great great shame, for two reasons. First, councils have a greater ability to improve people’s quality of life than most national politicians possess. Second, there are many good people working in local government – both councillors and officers – who believe in public service and want to do good.
So how to fix things? First, we need to make councils much, much simpler. That means that they should at the very least share helplines, so that if you have a problem with a street lamp, you ring one number and then someone at the end of the ‘phone sorts out who is responsible, rather than relying on you to do the work. But that would only be the start. It is clearly ridiculous that we have separate departments licensing markets in Suffolk Coastal, Ipswich, Mid-Suffolk and Bury. Why can’t we merge them all, so that they can do their jobs more efficiently, even if the final decision is still taken by elected representatives in Woodbridge, Ipswich, Needham Market and Bury? If we did the same for our planning departments, we could save money and pay better salaries, ensuring that we attracted the finest planners to come to Suffolk. In short, we could do more, better, with less. People would be less confused and see their councils working harder and better for them. We might then have a chance that they would like to come out to vote.