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Over-centralised government and lack of local democracy

Simon Jenkins struck a chord recently when he wrote about an over-centralised system of government which is resulting in a lack of local democracy. We are seeing this increasingly in Wiltshire as campaigners battle to save local bus services, childrens’ activity centres, special schools and a household recycling centre. 

The increasing demands of social services and the annual reduction in the amount of funding from central government are leading to short term cuts that could lead to greater long term costs.

Those speaking out about the causes of knife crime gangs in London have talked of the lack of things for the young to do. As a result of cuts the future of two much needed children’s activity centres, Braeside and Oxenwood is at stake. Following a huge petition, other bodies have been invited to tender to run them. However, the way ahead is not clear as it is still being said that Wiltshire Council has a responsibility to get the most profit from their holdings. Even a special needs school is at risk.

The Prime-Minister’s speech at the Tory conference brought a glimmer of hope that more money will be released for services so some of these dangers could be avoided, but will it come in time?
Meanwhile government money coming through an unelected Local Economic Partnership is pushing through controversial road schemes in order to unlock development. Funding has enabled a road to be built to serve the development at West Ashton. After persistent public protest, increased funding has enabled tunnels under the road to be built for rare Bechstein bats that roost in ancient woodland to reach their foraging ground.

More government funding will enable a tunnel to be built under the M4 motorway near Junction 16 leading out of Wichelstowe to the south. Since 2002, the public wish has been for a route to the north to link Wichelstowe to the town centre and provide a much needed railway crossing. But that is not to be. The important link to the centre may never be built and land banks south of the motorway may become buildable before most people realise what is happening.

Separate government funding could also endanger the World Heritage Site at Stonehenge where portals for the short tunnel along the A303 are proposed to come up within the site. Recent archaeological digs at Blick Mead, near Countess Roundabout have revealed rich evidence of flint working, aurochs and other animals. Mesolithic hunter gatherers frequented the site, pre-dating the Neolithic age and taking the history of Stonehenge much further back. If work proceeds on the tunnel and there are falls in the hydrological table, waterlogged environmental evidence could be destroyed.

Wiltshire Council took the decision on 9 October to close the Everleigh Household Recycling Centre, the oldest one in the County and the one with the best accessibility. This was despite 1330 people responding to the consultation in the form of a tick box survey and 94% wanting to keep it open. It is cheaper to recycle than to send waste to landfill or incineration and resources are saved. However, the report to cabinet said the loss of convenience and concern about the increase in fly-tipping are “not sufficient to justify the capital investment required and the loss of opportunity for revenue savings which the service and the council need to find.”

So much for those weasel words “responses will be taken into account”. It is the money from, or the lack of money from, central government that rules. As Simon Jenkins says sub national, ie local government controls just 1.6% of GDP compared to 6% in France, 11% in Germany and 16% in Sweden. It seems it is high time funding was released at central government and a chance given for democracy to work at local level.

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