Thursday, 18 April 2013

It seems to us that – not for the first time – Boston Borough Council is using a sledgehammer to crack a nut.
A detailed account of the discussions at the last meeting of BTAC – the Boston Town Area Committee – reports on the idea of turning the group into a separate Boston Town Council. At present, it effectively operates as the borough’s 19th parish council, drawing its income from a charge on the council tax – just as the others do.
However, in recent months there have been rumblings that BTAC is sometimes playing second fiddle to  the council’s ruling cabinet – doing its bidding rather than what the members would prefer if they had the democratic opportunity.
The most recent example was the last minute dumping of more than £30,000 from the council’s main budget on to BTAC to take over the full running costs of the Garfits Lane playing fields.
This is despite the fact that the council has an extremely well-funded leisure services budget with its own portfolio holder. But the crucial effect of passing the budgetary buck to BTAC was to let the council claim that its share of the council tax had not been increased – whilst instead increasing the council tax for a Band D property in the BTAC area from £8.85 to £12.72 – more than 40%.
The decision to do this teetered on the brink – and it was only the casting vote of Conservative chairman and cabinet member Councillor Mike Gilbert that carried the day … which was seen as validating the charges that the cabinet had a grubby finger in the pie.
One suggestion that has come up recently is that BTAC should go solo – cut its ties with Boston Borough Council, and become a parish council in its own right.
But the obstacles to this create a significant barrier.
Even before any decision, it would split the council, as – if BTAC decided to go ahead – it would have to engage its own advisors, as the Chief Executive would be acting for the borough council in any review.
And whilst the benefits would include increased self-determination, BTAC would run its own services in its own way and employ its own contractors.
The report to the committee – watched from the wings by stage manager and council leader Pete Bedford – says: “It would have its own clerk, and the head of the town council would have a civic role. It would make its own policy decisions; the borough council’s power and influence would be diluted. The rates charged for the area would be for the new town council to set …”
As always, cost is a predominant factor – and many committee members thought that a change would be too expensive.
But another view was that forming a town council would give people in the town fair and equal democracy to those in rural areas of the borough, as they were disadvantaged at present.
Not only that, but after reorganisation in 2015, the parishes would have more seats, and, effectively will set BTAC’s budget – “which was a concern, as decisions would be made by people who did not live in the town.”
If a referendum was held and town residents were asked whether they wanted to pay one charge or two they would vote for one. Self-determination was needed. BTAC was already paying for officers and accommodation.
But an interesting sidebar to the debate was that at the right time, a campaign would be launched for a parish council for Skirbeck as well as a town council for the town, to give people a voice.
Whatever the outcome, it is certainly true that the residents of the town are being discriminated against by the current structure.
BTAC’s current budget is proportionately small at present – around £100,000.
Declaring UDI, it seems, would require a shedload of staff, and possibly a town mayor as well – although what a mayor for the rural part of the borough would do is anyone’s guess.
But what would be most interesting would be the political implications of any change. As the council is ruled by the Tories, they plan never to lose a vote – although a couple of absentee members at a critical time could always change that.
When BTAC is running at full strength, there are 16 members – nine of them Conservative. The remaining seven comprise a mixture of Labour, Independent and English Democrats.
An independent BTAC might place decisions under greater scrutiny, and might make it harder for the cabinet to pull the strings if that is the case.
Meanwhile, Chief Executive Richard Harbord will review the Committee’s constitution to see if it could be amended to give it more parish council-like powers and report back to a future meeting.
But at the end of the day, cost – not democracy – will be the deciding factor, so expect to have to take the mixture as before.

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