Mark Wallace: Councils would do well to listen to independent grassroots campaign groups
Community-based campaigns, independent of local political parties, are not always a success. Sometimes this is due to badly organised or misguided campaigns, and sometimes it is down to councillors who are simply immovable in their views on a subject.
Many people around the country will have had the experience of sitting through interminable council meetings only to find that the councillors sitting at the table have had a closed mind to the evidence put before them. Similarly, many open-minded councillors will have experienced the frustration of having to sift through poorly drafted or ill-judged evidence sent to them by ineffective local campaigns.
The recent successes of a community campaign in Bath which the TaxPayers' Alliance is involved with lifts the lid on the process. A poorly thought out proposal from the council has been dealt a severe blow as a result of a strong, coherent case against it being put by a well-organised grassroots campaign.
The proposal on the table was Bath and North East Somerset Council's new 'Bath Rapid Transit Scheme', a plan for new park and ride car parks, road extensions and bendy buses running into Bath. Whilst the TPA is not opposed to park and ride, or new transport initiatives, in principle, the circumstances of the BRTS are somewhat alarming.
As has been well documented by the excellent local campaign groups Response2Route and Save Bathampton Meadows, the scheme runs a severe risk of serious cost-overruns even at this stage, before the turf has been broken.
Bath & North East Somerset taxpayers have of course already suffered the consequences of the council's incompetence in the disastrously mismanaged Bath Spa project, which ran 5 years and £30 million over budget. They could be forgiven for being naturally sceptical of the council's ability to deliver other capital projects.
As it happens, that scepticism is already proving justified. Wessex Water has recently disputed the council's budgeting, stating that the area of the work that affects them, sewage and drainage, will in fact cost £800,000 more than the council claims. Other works, including the extension to one of the car parks involved, have simply not been budgeted for.
Such worrying failings so early on in a project suggest that it does not look good for local taxpayers, particularly for those who could end up losing their gardens under the concrete of the new network as well as paying more tax to fund its overruns.
Thanks to a well-planned campaign run by a number of energetic activists, the opposition to the Scheme has been very high profile, gathering the support of thousands of local residents and submitting well-drafted evidence to the council's Development Control Committee.
And it was in that Committee's behaviour that we can see some of the best and worst of council accountability. In the initial vote, the Committee displayed a commendable willingness to listen to local concerns, voting by 6 to 5 against the plans.
At that point, though, things went a little bit weird. Apparently unsettled by the Committee's rebellious streak, the Chairman instructed them to vote again (presumably a decision inspired by the EU's approach to the Lisbon Treaty), this time putting on record their reasons for the decision.
The second vote resulted in a tie - not as good as an outright rejection but enough to stop the proposals for now. Disappointingly, it seems that whilst some of Bath & North East Somerset's councillors are willing to listen to and take on board the views of local residents and campaigners, the leadership of the council is less open-minded. Amazingly, the council's Tory group has actually lost its Chief Whip over the issue, who resigned in protest at the council's behaviour, saying it had "not acted in a manner consistent with the democratic principles of fairness, transparency and honesty" by changing the membership of the Development Control Committee prior to meetings in order to sideline councillors opposed to the scheme.
In recent years there has been a boom in grassroots, independent campaign groups, many of whom vastly outnumber conventional political parties in their local area in terms of membership, activity and indeed accountability. For democracy's sake - as well as for the sake of their own political futures - councils would do well to listen to them, and not dismiss them out of hand. As the example of Bath shows, some councillors get it whilst some of their leaders, in particular, do not.