A county council that works with communities to create their own futures – that’s the vision of the Conservative group leader after his party’s stunning election victory last week.
Speaking to the Gazette yesterday, following Friday’s historic result, Coun Peter Jackson spoke about how he wants the authority to be closer to communities, engaging with them and listening to them.
The new council will meet for the first time on Wednesday, May 24, when Coun Jackson is expected to be elected leader of the council, given the Tories secured 33 seats – one short of an overall majority.
From that point on, voters can expect to see action on a number of landmark pledges from their manifesto, such as stopping the relocation of County Hall from Morpeth to Ashington and the creation of local area councils, while other commitments may take longer and be more complicated – such as getting rid of Arch, at least in its current guise.
Reflecting on the results, Coun Jackson said: “We always had a feeling that we would do very well because the county council in Northumberland had been making itself so unpopular for the last four years under Labour, but the extent of the gains did surprise us.
“It was actually heartwarming to feel the support that we had in all parts of the county.
“The standout feature in north Northumberland was the fact that we gained so many seats from the Liberal Democrats.
“We won seats from Labour in the south-east and in Prudhoe, we won seats from the Independents in Bywell so we actually gained support from all sides of the political spectrum in Northumberland, which gives us the confidence to actually do our best for the whole county which is what we promised to do in the first place.”
Asked what the reasons were behind this wide-ranging success, Coun Jackson said: “We have found some fantastic local candidates.”
He said a good example of this is Robbie Moore in Alnwick, who he claimed knocked on every door in the Alnwick area at least three times.
However, he added: “The County Hall issue was obviously central. We did survey between 30,000 and 50,000 people across the county and in that sample, we hardly found one per cent who supported it.
“At a time when local-government funding is tight – and we can’t get away from that – but to be seen to be wasting money on extravagant projects goes directly against the public mood and residents just couldn’t understand it. I can confidently tell you that the move of County Hall is stopped. We have a full mandate from the electorate to stay in Morpeth and we will do that.”
Halting that relocation was first on a list of seven pledges in the Conservative manifesto. Also on that list was setting up local area investment funds and local area councils with planning powers.
“It’s about the vision of the way you run a council,” said Coun Jackson. “For the last four years, we have had a council that has been autocratic and did not engage in any meaningful way with local communities.
“What we want to do is change that round so we won’t impose large projects or developments on communities, we will actually work with them to create their own futures. In that way, we think we will find a better future for the whole county.
“The local area councils are part of that vision, so in north Northumberland we would fully expect the local area council to work very closely indeed with the major towns of Alnwick and Berwick on local development plans for those communities.”
Coun Jackson said this was not a return to the district councils, but about ‘bridging the gap between an autocratic, centralised county council and communities’. “We value the work that town and parish councils are doing and wish to work closely with them, it’s just to try and bridge that gap with a distant council that doesn’t engage, but should do.”
What about the other pledges in manifesto?
A pledge to scrap Arch has been watered down for now with the company wholly owned by the county council to be subject to a strategic review.
Coun Jackson also pointed out that they wanted to protect some of Arch’s functions such as the arm which rents out about 1,000 homes and the business support scheme.
But he did add: “Arch as a centralised, unanswerable, autocratic machine will have to change. That’s a longer-term project, we can’t do that tomorrow.”
The manifesto also contained a promise for a ‘war on potholes’ via spending £100million (over four years) on the county’s roads.
“It’s an absolute guarantee to protect that capital investment in our roads,” said Coun Jackson, with the money largely coming from central-government grants and the council providing top-up funding. “We would actually like it do more than that, but we will also have to do a finance review of this council.”
However, this review of the finances means that a manifesto pledge to scrap transport charges for post-16 students is not necessarily a cast-iron guarantee at this stage. “We will certainly make an early decision on how we are going to deal with that, but the budget is set for this year and we can’t actually review that situation until February next year.”
Overall, Coun Jackson said: “The public will find it easier to have their views heard and they will feel the council is closer to them and talks to them and their communities. If residents have positive ways of taking their communities forward in any way, we have a very open mind and open ear to hear what their views and ideas might be.
“The council’s here to support people, it’s not the other way round. That’s the change that we’re hoping to make.
“There’s been so many ways in which the county council has actually acted against the interests of many of our communities over the last four years. We’re hoping to change that round so we’re acting to support communities.”
But he had one final word of caution: “We can’t do everything on day one. There are some things we can do on day one and other things might take four years.”