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Does town council offer good value?

As someone who was attempting to promote public discussion and debate about this issue as long ago as 2004, I am pleased to see the topic of a potential Whitstable Town Council once more heading your letters page (Council Call Sounds Like Electioneering, Letters and Opinion, Gazette). There does seem to be a new head of steam building up on this issue, as I witnessed recently at a meeting of Transition Town Whitstable. However, I am concerned about the confident assertions from local politicians on both sides of the debate whose minds seem already made up; the Greens seem to think that “Whitstable Needs A Town Council” is a vote-wining slogan, while Cllr Ashley Clark (Con) appears adamant that the answer lies rather in beefed-up area members’ panels. Shouldn’t we all be much better informed about this complex subject before we rush to judgement? For instance, as your writers correctly imply, there would be inevitable costs involved in inserting another layer of local government, similar to the “precept” levied in rural areas by the parish councils, and we need to have some idea as to how much this could be. Then we need to weigh these costs against the potential benefits. A major function of town councils where they exist, and round the coast they exist in Folkestone, Dover, Deal, Sandwich, Ramsgate, Broadstairs and Faversham, is to act as the town’s consultation body for all local planning applications.

Of course, in lieu of a town council in Whitstable, the Whitstable Society has always performed this role in an admirably professional fashion. However, with the best will in the world, the WS can never be genuinely representative of all the people of Whitstable because its officers are not elected by all the people of Whitstable. The considered views of a democratically-elected town council would, indeed should, carry more weight with members of the planning committee. Is there any way some services currently provided by Canterbury City Council might be delivered more effectively by a lower-tier, more locally-based, authority? Allotments, open space management and public toilet provision come to mind. Are there also some services no longer provided by CCC in Whitstable on cost grounds, think tourist/visitor information office, that could be revived under a town council? We all have to do our individual “cost-benefit analysis” before we can reach a conclusion. But it doesn’t end there; the inception of town councils would also have a knock-on effect in several other directions.

It would affect and arguably diminish the status of the area members’ panels; it would have implications for CCC’S civic team, ie the Lord Mayor if local town mayors were introduced in Whitstable and! or Herne Bay and of course it would change the municipal chemistry between the three towns if either (or both of) Whitstable and Herne Bay went down this route. At its October meeting, CCC’s governance commission passed a motion along the following lines:
“The new council in 2015 be asked to commence a district-wide community governance review, and that the role of area members’ panels be reviewed in parallel.”
Perhaps the question of town councils should be examined at the same time?

Peter Halfpenny
Former CCC councillor for Gorrell ward, Swanfield Road, Whitstable

Herne Bay Gazette, April 2nd 2015

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