For some years now, Bexhill residents have been campaigning for more of a voice in decisions affecting their town. Everyone else living within Rother has a parish or town council, but Bexhill doesn’t. We need one – not to replace Rother, as Rother will continue as the second tier of local government but to represent Bexhill residents’ interests better.
History, ancient and modern
In 1902 Edward VII awarded Bexhill a royal charter to become Bexhill Borough Council. This was a source of great pride. But the council was lost in 1974 when Bexhill, Battle and Rye were merged along with the 29 parish councils to become the mostly rural Rother District Council. Rye kept its own town council, and so did Battle, but Bexhill’s 40,000 residents? Oddly, no.
In 2015, concerned citizens organised a petition with 4,000 people asking Rother for more democracy. Legally, this forced Rother to respond and to set up a consultation process called the Community Governance Review 2017. In Phase 1 of this, the public was asked their views.
To help promote this public consultation, petitioners set up a voluntary group called Democracy 4 Bexhill, D4B: a non-party group that wants the consultation to be open, fair and effective, and which is working to promote it and spread the word.
900 people responded to Rother’s consultation: twice as many as any previous public consultation held by Rother. The majority wanted a town council. The special steering committee that Rother set up to guide the whole CGR process recommended that in Phase 2 this summer, they would send Bexhill’s 23,000 households a leaflet setting out the options for governance and asking their views. Rother then would make the decision over whether Bexhill could have its own council.
At the last minute, Rother cancelled the steering committee’s meeting called to approve the leaflet. Then they insisted on adding an additional option that had never been referred to before, cancelled the leaflet drop saying it would cost too much, and effectively suspended everything by referring the whole process back to the steering committee! The Council meekly followed its leader. So now we wait to see what they are going to do. The clock is ticking. The law says they must complete the consultation process by January 2018.
The four options that have been proposed:
- No change.
- A town council. It would have some powers, some capacity to raise money to provide services, and it could represent Bexhill’s interests more effectively than what happens now. It would cost a household in Band D, about 12p a week.
- An area committee. That would bring together the current 18 Rother councillors for Bexhill to meet occasionally, but Rother has said it would have no powers.
- Four parish councils. Each one would need a part-time paid town clerk.
What is a town council?
All over the UK, there are usually three tiers of local government with different responsibilities – in our area, we have
- East Sussex County Council (roads, social services, education etc),
- Rother District Council (environmental protection, waste, housing, planning) and
- a parish or town council (except not for Bexhill!)
A town council is a statutory body and is the most local level of government. It serves the local area, and plays an important role in promoting the town, representing its interests and supporting the work of different groups in the community. It can wield “soft power” – in Bexhill this would mean influencing important decisions on Bexhill issues made by Rother or East Sussex County Council.
Town councils also have a number of formal powers. Many provide allotments, and look after playing fields, and other types of leisure facilities. They maintain rights of way, bus shelters, public benches or toilets and smaller scale street lighting. Town councils are often concerned with the provision of community buildings, and with services for children, youth or old people. They can provide a tourist information service or even get initiate projects on housing or older people. They can do these things themselves or can fund other organisations, such as a charity, to do them through grants or contracts. In some areas they reinstate services which the bigger local authority has cut. As some of Rother’s parish councils already do, it could prepare a neighbourhood development plan or order which becomes part of the local development plan for the area and must be used as a basis for making decisions on planning. The town council would also receive up to 25% of the money paid by developers towards local infrastructure.
The Localism Act 2012 was a landmark act which gave greater powers to parish and town councils and encouraged greater community involvement. But Rother has not embraced this. A town council offers the people this involvement, with democratic representation and accountability, and the ability to deliver existing services or provide additional services.
A town council would be elected. The councillors will not be paid: unlike Rother councillors, town councillors are not normally given an allowance. A town council would need a qualified town clerk, and modest premises – perhaps shop premises in Bexhill.
What can I do?
Support us! Find Democracy4 Bexhill on Facebook or website www.democracy4bexhill.com. Write to firstname.lastname@example.org. Chair Doug Oliver is on 07917 845737 or Vice Chair Christine Bayliss on 01424 218250. Rother’s own website is informative, at www.rother.gov.uk, just search for Community Governance Review.
But the most important thing is to VOTE! The voting opened on September 1st 2017 and runs to 1630 on October 13th. Please talk to your friends and neighbours and make sure that thousands of people make their views known. Let’s show them that Bexhill residents do care about local democracy. Vote by going direct to https://surveymechnics.com/s/bexCGR or ask for a voting postcard from Rother town hall or from your local councillor.
Perhaps they think we’re not bothered?
They may be in for a surprise.