Want a better place to live? Be prepared to pay for it

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After the Canterbury Society published its vision for the city, Dave Wilson explores what can be done to achieve it

Do you have a vision for what Canterbury might be like in 2030? Most of us, I suppose, probably have a vague idea of how we’d like things to be. Many of those thoughts might be incompatible or unachievable. But we’d all like the place to be better – the question is, how to define better?

The Canterbury Society this week launched its own vision, which sets out targets and strategies covering 12 aspects of life in our city.

It is a thorough and generally progressive vision, addressing many (perhaps) all of the issues that residents routinely complain about: traffic and transport, pollution, housing, homelessness and poverty, crime, health and the economy among others.

So far, so good. What is striking, though, are three aspects of the proposals which point to, and in some instances ultimately directly address, the root causes of the challenges which face us in this historic but growing city.

The first is that many of the suggestions look, to me at least, to be things which any responsible council ought to be doing without prompting.

Is it really visionary, for example, to suggest that any solution to the city’s traffic congestion requires “high quality road traffic modelling”?

Or that there should be specific targets for reducing vehicle journeys and increasing bus and cycle usage? Shouldn’t these already be in the transport planning by both KCC and the city council?

As another example, I question whether a target to build 1,000 new homes for social letting by 2029 is either really challenging or adequate to resolve the existing scale of the homelessness problem in the district.

And some of the points are so minor – like decluttering the High Street of bins, bollards, A-Boards and tables – that they hardly qualify as visionary at all, at least in any sensibly run tourist city like ours.

This apparent mismatch in the relative scale and impact of some of the proposals makes it hard to focus on the major changes that could lead to a step change in the quality of life in our city.

This may seem nit-picking, but for me a real vision would start from a simpler statement of principles than we find here: an economy which provides more, better paid, jobs; housing available for everyone; a healthcare system that works; a protected and enhanced environment; an overhaul of local transport systems; and adequate financing of the council.

The specifics, on which the vision is very good, should flow from these statements of principle, and would be all the more powerful for that.

However, the Vision also tries to deal with the question of how to translate all these aspirations into reality.

Here the Canterbury Society is in a dilemma caused by its need to be politically neutral. Throughout the document there are scattered allusions to the need for legislative changes, especially around land valuation and planning controls.

The Vision often refers to the impacts of austerity on, for example, crime and homelessness. It also specifically addresses the question of “governance” of the city and county councils (although this is one of the weakest areas of the document).

These are all, at root, political issues requiring changes in policy as well as law. But of course, the Canterbury Society is hobbled by not being able to directly denounce the failures of both the Conservative government and the Conservative council over the past 10 years or more.

Given the consensus that clearly existed among the many people consulted and engaged in writing the Vision, this blindingly obvious stage in moving from where we are now to where the Vision would like us to be hamstrings the whole project for change.

Which brings us finally to what the document itself describes as “the elephant in the room”: the lack of adequate funding for local government. Here we come face-to-face with the ideological divide which separates the Tories from the other Parties. To quote from the Vision:

Local authorities are key in supporting the quality of life … Some things cannot be bought by individuals, such as clean air, beautiful public parks, litter collection, policing, affordable housing and transport systems that work for the people that use them.”

As one of the speakers at the launch pointed out, if you buy a $100 million penthouse in New York, you pay a proportionately large amount – a claimed $280,000 – for the civic service in that city.

If you buy one in Westminster, your council tax is capped at a derisory figure in the low thousands of pounds. Therein lies the root of the problem of local government finance.

The council tax system is nearly 30 years old. If it was ever fit-for-purpose, which is a dubious proposition, it certainly isn’t now.

The failure of Governments of all persuasions – including the Tory/Lib Dem coalition – to deal with this, made worse by 10 years of pointless austerity, has pushed local government finances to the brink of failure – and over the brink, in at least one case.

As I wrote here just last month: “Local government that is genuinely accountable to its voters must have both the right to raise the money needed for its programmes, and the responsibility to justify that expenditure.”

If there is one thing that everyone should take from the Canterbury Society’s carefully independent view of the question, it is precisely that we get what we pay for.

We must have the right to decide for ourselves what we want and how much we are prepared to pay for it. That, and nothing less, is fundamental to our democracy.

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