It is now widely accepted that councils are no longer viewed as “public services”. A council used to be elected to represent the interests of its area and its councillors were supposed to represent the views of their electors (though this was not always the case). Council tax was seen as the price we paid for our public services.
Now councils are seen as businesses. They exist to make a profit. They are no longer guardians of public assets but are looking to sell off as many of their “unprofitable” assets as possible whilst retaining cash cows. They do not see a responsibility to council tax payers or to future generations and now developers are what they call their real “customers” that they are there to serve. Indeed, a few years ago, one of EDDC’s senior officers said that, yes, developers are their real customers as they pay large sums into council coffers, more than council tax and therefore they should be considered the council’s most important customers – far more important than council tax payers.
Now we have the situation where the “council businesses” no longer has the interests of electors at their heart and they are increasingly attempting to be simply profitable businesses. But the problem then arises when what is best for the business is not best for electors.
Take the situation in Exmouth. The district council does not want Marks and Spencers Food to be sited near the railway and bus stations (on land owned by Devon County Council) but on its own land which is currently designated as a rugby field. Marks and Spencers knows what it wants and would have been aware of the choice of sites and they chose the one that suited their needs.
This now pitches council business against council business – EDDC against DCC. Some might say this is a good thing as it stimulates competition. However, there is a BIG stumbling block. One of these businesses (EDDC) holds the right to allow or refuse the planning application on the other businesses’s land. Today it is EDDC which holds the trump cards, tomorrow it may be DCC (for example, Straitgate Quarry, where DCC wants it to continue and EDDC does not).
In the past, the deal-breaker would have been: what is best for the district? Now the deal-breaker is: what effect does this have on our income stream and our ability to sell off assets to the highest bidder?
Increasingly, councillors are playing no part in these decisions, except to follow government guidelines that services must be slashed and developers must be encouraged and they must toe the party line on this.
We, the electors, are not just marginalised but practically eradicated from the decision-making process, since our interests are not those of the businesses which our councillors now serve.
Is this what we should accept? If not, how do we ensure that we get what is best for our district and not what is best for EDDC plc or DCC plc?