Running a town council costs a lot of money it seems.
By the time you’ve paid for staff, their offices and supplies, and added in the time cost of the volunteer councillors and their election, the local community picks up a hefty bill every year. In Ledbury, every pound spent on providing a community service is matched by a pound spent on running the council that delivers it. Is this good value for money? Here's my personal view...
What the Council Costs
In this year’s Ledbury Town Council budget, staff costs and office expenses total £139 thousand out of a turnover of £321 thousand (that’s about 43%). If they are doing their job properly, each volunteer town councillor spends annually at least one hundred and ten hours sitting in formal committees and council meetings which are attended by two, often three paid staff. This equates to about two thousand hours of time by the Council’s eighteen councillors, not including preparation. Taking a very modest hourly rate of £13.85, these local community representatives contribute about £30 thousand annually to the operation of the council. Informal ‘working parties’ play an additional large part in town council affairs. These groups talk about everything from the upkeep of the Cemetery, the management of ‘greenspaces’, Christmas Lights and the Charter Market. Every weekday night, there will be a meeting going on discussing this and that, most of them attended by the Clerk or her Deputy taking minutes. Those working parties consume annually at least another eighty hours of each councillor’s valuable spare time. And so on. Each year, Ledbury Town Council talks its way through three and half thousand hours of volunteer time. This total does not include the time contributed by members of the public to working parties like the Town and Neighbourhood Plans. All in all it is a prodigious voluntary effort. Goodness, for all that work we might expect to see some spectacular results.
Meanwhile the Clerk and her staff are run ragged week in and out servicing this maelstrom of meeting activity. Added to the agendas and minutes that are needed, there is a blizzard of photocopying, collating of meeting packs, lugging of the groaning sacks of post out of the door and all the other bureaucratic apparatus that gobbles up great chunks of that £139 thousand overheads bill. Undeniably the staff work hard to keep things ticking along, but let us not forget that they do enjoy an enviable range of protected benefits including inflationary pay rises, annual increments and a copper-bottomed local authority final salary pension scheme with a handsome 23% employer contribution.
How Does Ledbury Compare?
Is Ledbury Town Council particularly profligate? A little perhaps. Hereford City Council’s equivalent overhead costs are about 30% of its turnover, about 15% lower than Ledbury’s. Leominster and Ross are somewhere between the two. Looking further afield, there are those parish/town councils which spend dramatically less than Ledbury servicing themselves (but few who spend more).
The delightful Leicestershire town of Ashby de la Zouch with a population of 19 thousand has an operating budget similar to Ledbury’s of £318 thousand but it spends just £34 thousand on staff and overheads, a meagre 11%. Chard in Somerset (pop 12 thousand), is a relative high roller in town council terms with a budget of £708 thousand, but it only spends £118 thousand on overheads (17%). Ditto Dover, Didcot, Frome, Longstanton, Sandwich, Royston, Holt and Sandbach which all spend less than 30% of their council-tax funded budgets on overheads. Out of my sample of twenty two councils, culled randomly from the internet, only three spend more money on their overheads than Ledbury: take a bow Ludlow, Buckingham and Helston. Hey big spenders.
Costs and Benefits
Even in these times of austerity, few people mind decent investment in community services. I personally have no objection to raising our local council tax (the precept) if this safeguards or enables new public provision that directly benefits local residents. Such expenditure should be regarded as an investment in our future. That Ledbury Town Council definitely costs on the high side is not of itself a bad thing. There is one proviso: if we pay top dollar for the council, we expect gold-plated service from it. From that £140 thousand investment in the administration, what exactly is the town getting back? This year the Town Council’s wages bill grew from £90 thousand to £98 thousand, about 9%. With an inflation rate of around zero, would it be very unfair to ask whether local council tax payers are getting a 9% extra benefit? While town council employees do work hard for their crust, it does seem perverse when every public administration in the land is getting rid of staff, that Ledbury has been hiring more.
The office team is running on the spot servicing the Council’s burdensome bureaucracy, so much so, that its opening hours are very limited, and to make an appointment to meet the Clerk reportedly can mean you wait over a month before she is available.
All that effort arguably makes a limited practical contribution to the well-being of the town. When the (volunteer) Neighbourhood Plan team asked the Town Council if the Clerk and her staff could provide a formal project management function, beyond basic clerical support, this was refused because there was no capacity to take on additional work. Fair enough. The issue of course is about setting priorities: any time management manual will advise to ignore the urgent, but instead concentrate on the important. Yet, Ledbury Town Council is incapable of agreeing its priorities in such a way. Activity is dictated by the annual cycle of meetings and budget setting, not by any sense of the future, of the goals and opportunities which reflect our communities’ needs and hopes. This council, like so many other public bodies, is mostly reactive, often lethargic, and always attached to its comfortable, unchanging rituals and routines. There is no time to do anything new, because it is so busy doing what it always did.
Of course the Clerk wouldn’t simply be able to reallocate her task-load in order to create space for the most important project in the town’s history, the Neighbourhood Plan. To whom would she seek guidance and direction on such an important policy matter? There is no mechanism, no-one to help her. Ledbury Town Council has no strategic plan, no policy priorities, no milestones by which it can know its progress, no overarching criteria for informing decisions. The great ship of state sails serenely on, untroubled by its eventual destination.
A striking facet of the Town Council’s psyche is its proud sense of purpose. Each year in May, a new Mayor is chosen who dons a sparkling gold-plated chain. Committee chairs and vice chairs are elected. The great and good of the town mingle for sandwiches and refreshments pleased to be part of a tradition that goes all the way back to 1974 or thereabouts.
From these convivial beginnings, a round of monthly ‘full council’, economic development and planning, environment and leisure, and finance and ‘general purposes’ meetings spins into motion like one of those elaborate clocks found on German town halls where gay figures twirl colourfully amid much clanging of bells before they disappear at each quarter hour.
The meetings of course are often less vibrant than might be hoped. Minutes, resolutions, points of order, proposing and seconding, reports received, correspondence, arguments about procedure, ritual complaints about Herefordshire Council, on and on they rumble, glacial in their progress as well as their mood. There might be an occasional quip leavening the general dullness to which the old council lags will guffaw appreciatively, but really, if it’s humour or human warmth that you crave, better by far to stay at home for Coronation Street which also begins at 7.30. Town councillors genuinely agonise and despair that nobody comes to their meetings, that the town seems apathetic to their ministrations. Their concern is touching, if at times delusional.
All these committees theoretically provide a democratic backbone to decisions and policies made at local level. The truth is that precious little democracy exists. Despite its bemoaning, it suits the old guard that people take scant interest in what the Council gets up to.
Take the role of Mayor. Each year, the title goes to a new person, until this year anointed by shadowy fixers who have themselves been mayor. Not only is he or she the figurehead of the town, attending abundant civic luncheons round and about the three counties, resplendent in their gold-plated chain, but this person acts as the Chairman of the Council too. S/he chairs Council meetings and is asked for press comments and quotes, acting as the Council’s public face. S/he signs off major expenditure, and line manages the Town Clerk, a centrally important role. Through the Mayor are channeled complaints and matters of scrutiny, which is problematic if that complaint concerns the conduct of the mayor him/herself as we saw in the case of Bob Barnes. Nothing seems to happen in Ledbury Town Council unless the Mayor sanctions it. The Clerk apparently defers to the Mayor in all matters, and has built up warm personal relationships with quite a few of them over the years, many of whom still serve as councillors. Herein lies the real apparatus of power in Ledbury. It’s the ‘chumocracy’ at work: unaccountable, lacking in transparency and anti-democratic.
Over the years, the figure of the Mayor has come to resemble that of a president. There’s nothing in writing to this effect, that’s just how it is. In matters of financial control, policy and procedure, human relations management, standards and conduct, meetings and motions, the mayor is unquestionable and unassailable. The mayor receives no training, but is expected to fulfill a complex and demanding role, full of intricate detail and fine questions of judgement. Some are better at it and approach their task with more intelligence and skill than others. Alas, as Shakespeare observed, ‘summer’s lease hath all too short a date’, and the good, diligent mayor, just as they are learning to function effectively in their role, is shuffled aside, to be replaced by an incompetent one or worse.
Control lies at the irregularly beating heart of Ledbury Town Council. There is not much you can do, but plenty that is disallowed or impossible. As a member of the Old Guard, one of the things you can do is to send covert emails trashing your colleagues or members of the public; what you must not do, as a victim of their disparagement, is to raise a complaint against them. You can get up whispering campaigns to damage people, but you can’t stand up and confront those whisperers. To do so you invite ostracism, silencing, public rebuke and character assassination. In true Kafkaesque fashion, you are then accused of bullying, egotism and intimidation.
Ledbury Town Council contains a toxic brew of small town politics, old vendettas and newly spawned feuds. The culture is rancid with barely suppressed malice. The slighted and aggrieved sit sullenly in meetings doing their damndest to confound their enemies’ best efforts. Fresh faces with new ideas get squished and swatted if they presume to push for change. Dickens caught it perfectly: “’Please, sir,' replied Oliver, 'I want some more.' ... 'That boy will be hung,' said the gentleman in the white waistcoat.” They tried to hang me, metaphorically.
What The Town Council Actually Delivers
Despite all those thousands of hours of talk and deliberation, nothing much happens out of Ledbury Town Council, ordinary or otherwise.
The Council’s service portfolio is modest. Here are the things it does: grounds maintainenance for the Closed Churchyard, the cemetery, Dog Hill Wood and the Recreation Ground; provide hanging baskets and Christmas lights in the town; maintain its historic buildings, the Market House and Town Council offices. The planning committee comments on local planning applications before they go to Herefordshire Council, although their decisions are often ignored. You have to question even the usefulness of this routine given that some town councillors regularly turn up and vote on planning applications which they haven’t even read, a scandalous abuse. The Council also makes some grants to local bodies on an ongoing basis. And that’s about it, a meagre offering for so much effort.
This service costs Ledbury £320 thousand per annum, that’s £32 taken taken from each adult and child of the town. There are glaring inadequacies in the budgeting process. Why for instance does the Council not charge the full cost for burials at the cemetery which thus requires a subsidy of nearly £11 thousand each year? Yet, the Council spends next to nothing on youth provision. Telling isn’t it, that we seem to care more about cheaply burying our dead rather than helping our young people enjoy their lives?
The woes and iniquities of this town council go on and on, too long and depressing to specify. The greatest evil however is the tragic and inexcusable waste of time which is expended by paid staff, by volunteer councillors, enthusiastic and jaded alike, and by the general public. All that time wasted is a subtraction from our potential, a drain of our energy and creativity, an exhausting diminution of our collective joy and hope. Ledbury Town Council is not just a harmless anachronism, it is a canker in the well-being of our town, consuming precious resources that ought to be used elsewhere. In its current form, we are the worse for it. It has to be reformed.
A Better Future
Imagine if instead of sitting in endless committees that practically delivery very little, all those councillors were out in the community actually organising events and community services, fundraising, knocking on doors to consult with voters and tax payers, taking part in setting up cooperatives for energy, transport, housing and so on…
Imagine a small professional paid town council team that is applying for grants and funding, sponsorship and income generating ventures to raise lots of money that could be channeled into community services, the library, sports and arts, social provision, youth activities. It’s a common enough principle: staff first have to pay for themselves at least, and then return a decent profit to make it worthwhile.
There is the business of attracting money into Ledbury through promoting the town as a tourism destination and attracting inward investment from the private sector. Doing so, should offer opportunities to raise money through a tourism tax, a percentage added to business rates, and more business sponsorship potential, all of which could be ploughed back into the community.
Imagine a town centre that is alive all through the year with festivals and celebrations, parades and events, markets and street entertainers, public art, beautiful new additions to the public realm.
The best town and parish councils are organising themselves to do these things. They see their council administrations as a catalyst for economic growth and social development. They are actively shearing red-tape and ancient bureaucratic practices which cost a lot but add little. They are making themselves into vital, exciting, and innovative organisations that are designed to serve, rather than rule their communities.
In Ledbury we don’t do any of these things. Our town council is sclerotic and hobbled by incompetence. We muddle along, spending lots of time and money on being important, but which succeed only in pushing ourselves further into obscurity. Ledbury deserves a million times better.