|Civil Liberties needs our Rural Districts :
18 May 2006
During the last few years, we have seen the increasing domination of Whitehall over every aspect of our lives and politics. It is a matter of civil liberties. Our rights have become so restricted and circumscribed by politically correct rules that one is almost afraid to sneeze without asking permission from Tony Blair .
After the Terrorism Act, we no longer have the same unfettered freedom of speech which we used to be so proud of. New statutes have restricted our rights to make peaceful protests; people suspected of committing certain crimes can be held for a month without being charged, and old established principles, which we were taught to value as children - such as the right to be presumed innocent until proved guilty, the right not to be convicted without a trial and the right to trial by jury have all been steadily eroded.
The reasonse given for this erosion of civil liberties are the prevention of terrorism, the suppression of organised crime and the reduction of anti-social behaviour, but are they really reasons or just an excuse for tightening the apparatus of control within a closely regulated corporate state?
Unfortunately, it is not just individual liberties which are being eroded. It has long been an accepted part of the British democratic system that decisions should be taken democratically at the lowest possible administrative level. So, in the shire counties, districts are considered big enough to take decisions on most planning matters, but not big enough to deal with the maintenance and upkeep of roads. This two tier system can be criticised for not being a one-stop shop, but it has worked well for decades, and gives a very wide opportunity for local people to share in making local decisions which affect their communities.
This is not good enough for central government. It is not in their interest to see so many people involved in the democratic process. They want absolute control over all decisions, including local decisions. They want to cut the number of elected representatives by cutting the number of councils and merging the shire districts with other districts, whilst abolishing the historic shire county councils.
Many people ask why we should be concerned about local government. They say there are too many councillors anyway. What they do not see is that here too there is a Civil Liberties Issue - the right of local people to have local democratic representation for the provision of local services: it is the right of democratic representation which is being taken away. The services themselves will not disappear, nor will the expense of running them - but instead of being managed or directed by locally elected representatives, they will be run by officials, who are increasingly remote from the public they serve.
So far we have had three attempts to abolish the Shire Counties and their rural districts: the first in 1996; the second with the Regional Government fiasco, and the third was the white paper we have all been expecting in July. So, why am I talking about a White Paper for July in the past tense? Because it's been shelved - the government has so much to think about, that reorganising local government must be right at the very bottom of their list of priorities just now.
This, of course, does not prevent some people in Ryedale District Council from wanting to do the government's dirty work for them. They know that, if enough work is outsourced to other authorities under the umbrella of a "partnership", Ryedale District Council could become unviable, and the merger option (probably with Scarborough) could become inevitable.
On 24th April, members were asked, at a special meeting of the Council, as one of only two items on the agenda, to outsource its Revenues and Benefits department to a "partnership" to be run from Hambleton at Northallerton under what looks very much like a takeover. This is the scheme which is far from cost effective, as it is to be financed by the £650,000 government bribe. Members were not convinced by the officers' reports, particularly as it seemed doubtful that Ryedale would receive as effective a service under the "partnership" as it does now. So, by a very narrow majority, the Council decided not to accept the recommendation.
This was followed by a "briefing" behind closed doors, during which there was encouragement to get the Council's decision reversed. And there is a motion for tomorrow night's meeting to do precisely this. If it succeeds, there will be redundancies (most of them from Ryedale), and there will be increased pressure to merge the authority with one or more other councils - which will result in even more redundancies. But the redundancies are not as important as the civil liberties issue: our democratic right to have our local services run locally by democratically elected local representatives will have been seriously damaged.