Yesterday I went to meet the new Chief Executive of Wokingham Unitary Borough Council. Chief Executives come and go in local government, drawing good salaries whilst they stay, before moving on to larger Councils or quangos that spend more money and employ more staff. The last couple of Chief Executives at Wokingham have had three big issues on their desks, that have now been passed on to their successor.
The details of the issues will not concern most readers of this site, though they are similar no doubt to issues facing other Councils in the suburbs and shires. The interesting thing is to ask, Where does power lie now in this overgoverned but undermanaged country we live in? How much power does a Chief Executive, working to the brief of the Council leadership, have to get things done?
The three things that the Councillors agree about that sit on the CEOâ€™s desk are that Wokingham is experiencing too much new housing development on green fields, that it needs a redeveloped Town Centre (including some new residential units), and that it needs a new station and transport interchange. These items have sat on the same desk â€“ with different people looking at that from behind that desk â€“ for the last ten years.
My electors are right in thinking that a project like a new station requires efforts from national and local government, from Network Rail and from the Council. In 2001 I included in my election proposals support for a new station and transport interchange. I was careful not to claim I could deliver one. An Opposition MP has no executive power and no budget for such things. I took plans to the Council, the government and Railtrack/Network Rail. I explained how the land â€“ owned by the public sector â€“ could be used for a suitable development which would give enough planning gain to pay for a new station. I reasoned that the Labour government favoured rail travel. It had a policy to modernise the railway. Even assuming it wouldnâ€™t want to spend any additional public money in an area like Wokingham, our golden acres could come to the rescue and raise the money for a suitable scheme. Ministers confirmed they liked the idea of modernising stations out of property profits at Network Rail. Schemes were drawn up. The Council was enthusiastic. The Chief Executive was given it as a task to see it through. Nothing happened. In the 2005 election I dropped all reference to supporting such a scheme, as I concluded that Network Rail simply isnâ€™t up to doing something like that.
My electors are also right in thinking that the national government is heavily involved in all the building on floodplain and over the remaining greenfields which they so dislike. Councillors and their executives are locked in difficult arguments about whether to confront the government and lose, or whether to co-operate with the government and gain more cash from developers when they get planning permission. As an Opposition MP I join with my colleagues to demand more local planning control, and to vote against the centralising measures this government pushes through. The Council has to conform to government requirements in the local plan, and finds that if it turns down too many proposals the government simply trumps it on appeal. If the Council co-operates it can do a better deal for the local community over any given planning application, at the cost of some electors thinking they have been let down by their Councillors who should have opposed it to the last ditch.
The third item on the CEOâ€™s desk is the need for a redevelopment of the Town Centre. In this case the Council has granted planning permission, but the developer is still not in a position to carry out the works. For once it is not government that is the problem, but getting all the private interests together and pointing in the same direction. It is an interesting challenge for the CEO, and one which has defeated her predecessors.
It all adds to peopleâ€™s sense of frustration with government. The Council they elect cannot have its way on planning matters, and cannot get the nationalised railway company to follow the stated policy of the government that owns it on our behalf. Even when MP, Council leadership and the Council executive team are united on what to do, the stifling inadequacies of central government and Network Rail, or the deliberate wish to follow a different policy in the case of planning conspire to prevent progress or to thwart the will of the community.