John Marriott

Columnist

John Marriott is a former Lib Dem county councillor for Hykeham. A former Head of Languages at the North Kesteven School, he represented Hykeham Forum Division on the Lincolnshire County Council. From 1987 to 2011 he was a member of the North Hykeham Town Council and also served for 18 years on the North Kesteven District Council, finally standing down in 2007. He has lived in Hykeham since 1977.


I see that the first reactions to Barry Turner’s latest offering are pretty negative. Mind you, as I have never done Twitter or Facebook or any of the social media platforms for that matter, I guess that what the editor allows to be published are generally a relatively mild tip of what might be a rather one sided iceberg.

Since I started writing this, I’m pleased to see that there are a few brave souls on social media also prepared to come to his defence.

Now, I hold no brief for Mr Turner who, judging by the photo he has submitted, appears to be far from a long haired, bearded ‘leftie’ and, judging by the selection of books behind him, a well read individual as well.

In fact, he’s a dead ringer for Greg Wallace, who hardly strikes me from his TV performances as coming ‘from the left’.  In his latest article, he could be accused by some of us to be stating the bleedin’ obvious; but that doesn’t mean that he is necessarily wrong in his analysis!

My immediate reaction to some of his ‘critics’, who dismiss his opinions as automatically coming from the left, would be to encourage them to expand a little, even on the kind of limited platforms they use to tell us WHY they think the way they do.

I would go further and say I find it quite disappointing how the ‘Columns’ on The Lincolnite appear to have dwindled over the past couple of years. What has happened to free speech and the exchange of views, sincerely expressed, that used to be a part of our daily lives?

I suppose that most people just want a quiet life and find politics rather distasteful, which actually probably suits many politicians at all levels down to the ground.

Besides Mr Turner, the other ‘bête noire’ of some Lincolnite commentators would appear to be Cllr Martin Hill, whose every utterance, however reasonable – and, believe me, he can be reasonable at times – is immediately met with excoriating comments from certain quarters.

As for myself, well, I used to be a member of the Liberal Democratic Party (although I never supported the abolition of tuition fees) but no more, I supported Remain not out of any great enthusiasm for the European project, and now accept the reality of our leaving the EU, with all the pitfalls we could encounter.

I haven’t voted in any election recently as there was nobody I could bring myself to vote for, although I did go to the polling station each time and spoiled my ballot! So, where does that put me on the political spectrum? I’ve spent most of my adult life in the minority so I’m pretty used to criticism.

What I would like to see is more of a willingness from both sides of the political argument just to pause a little and see whether there really was some sense in what the other side had to say instead of immediately shutting down debate by the odd well rehearsed slogan.

So, come on, give Barry and Martin a bit of slack. Perhaps most of us are too set in our ways to budge. And yet, as the late John Lennon told us in ‘Imagine’; “You may say I’m a dreamer / But I’m not the only one”.

A few more ‘Columns’ might be a good start.


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John Marriott is a former Lib Dem county councillor for Hykeham. A former Head of Languages at the North Kesteven School, he represented Hykeham Forum Division on the Lincolnshire County Council. From 1987 to 2011 he was a member of the North Hykeham Town Council and also served for 18 years on the North Kesteven District Council, finally standing down in 2007. He has lived in Hykeham since 1977.

I feel that some of the comments on my latest article on devolution deserve a reply and, indeed, further explanation. First of all, let me make it clear that neither Martin Hill, nor I are bosom buddies and that I have no intention of joining his party.

My opinion on him is based on sixteen years of being a member of the council on which he has served since 1993. I have seen how he and some of his more enlightened Tory colleagues rescued the council from the depths into which it had sunk by the early 2000s.

By the way, nobody is talking about ‘Hill for Lincolnshire Mayor’. We are talking about democratically elected and accountable councils providing more devolved services together with parish/town councils to their residents, with hopefully a reformed fiscal structure as an absolute essential. That they will probably be under Conservative control, either majority or outright, goes without saying.

While we have the current voting system this is unlikely to change in a hurry and even then, looking at the demography, it might take more than an earthquake to move the dial. This is Lincolnshire after all.

Cllr Spratt and others are quite right about a one council Lincolnshire being too remote. It’s an argument first used back in the early 1970s when the idea of unitary authorities was first raised by the Redcliffe-Maud Report following a Royal Commission into Local Government 1966-1969, which recommended the replacement of all councils in England above parish level by unitary councils.

However, as a Lincoln City councillor over many years (I think he and I got first elected at about the same time in the 1980s), if he might be putting in a bid for a City of Lincoln unitary, he is making the same mistake that his council made nearly thirty years ago. As far as the current Lincolnshire County Council area is concerned, two unitary authorities would make more sense.

I imagine that Cllr Hill and his fellow leaders would want to divide the ‘Humber to Wash’ by North and North East Lincolnshire combining in the north to leave Lincolnshire in the south. Together, the two unitaries south of the Humber would serve a population of around 320,000, which is manageable.

However, that would leave Lincolnshire with well over 700,000, which is far too big. Where would you put all the councillors in a meeting, for one thing, given that, by current ratios, you would need well over 200 of them?

Current council chambers are far too small and what if social distancing, even at one metre, becomes the norm well into the future? England’s largest unitary council, Cornwall, serves a population of over 360,000 people and currently has 123 councillors.

The answer as far as the Lincolnshire County Council area is concerned, as I said earlier, would be to divide it into two unitaries each running from east to west. So, how about West Lindsey, East Lindsey, Lincoln and North Kesteven (Part) for one and North Kesteven (Part), South Kesteven, Boston Borough and South Holland & Deepings for the other?

The combined population for the former would be around 370,000 and include the northern part of NK around North Hykeham, while that of the latter, which would include the rest of NK around Sleaford would be around 360,000. There might need to be a joint strategic body between the three councils to oversee highways, rather like the one that exists currently between County and Districts to oversee flood and drainage.

I appreciate that all this wouldn’t go down well in North Kesteven, but, as someone who used to make the regular trip up and down the A15 between North Hykeham and Sleaford to attend District Council meetings for eighteen years, there is quite a geographic divide between the two areas. Hykeham clearly belongs to greater Lincoln and has little affinity with the south, as do most of its surrounding villages.

Before I ‘retired’ in 2017 I served as one of the three County Council representatives on the Central Lincolnshire Joint Strategic Planning Committee, made up of the County Council, West Lindsey, Lincoln City and North Kesteven District Councils that successfully launched its Local Plan in April of that year. So the idea of such areas combining has a good track record.

I appreciate that discussing what to do about local government is hardly likely to generate as much interest as, for example, whether the real name of the late Wing Commander Guy Gibson’s dog should remain on its memorial. However, unless we do something about reforming how we are governed, our democracy will continue to suffer. On the other hand, perhaps most of us don’t really care.

John Marriott is a former Lib Dem county councillor for Hykeham. A former Head of Languages at the North Kesteven School, he represented Hykeham Forum Division on the Lincolnshire County Council. From 1987 to 2011 he was a member of the North Hykeham Town Council and also served for 18 years on the North Kesteven District Council, finally standing down in 2007. He has lived in Hykeham since 1977.

I’ve known the much maligned Cllr Martin Hill for nearly twenty years, and worked both against and latterly with him in my sixteen years as a county councillor, which ended in 2017. I know he’s a Conservative and I am not and, so he’s supposed to be my enemy according to those who favour the adversarial side of politics.

As the majority in Lincolnshire, who bother to vote regularly, clearly are Conservative supporters and probably always will be, I’m nothing if not a realist. He clearly has a brain and is capable of using it and, believe me, he has run a tight ship in difficult times. He definitely does NOT deserve some of the insults from certain quarters, that have come his way over recent years.

However, surely he and his fellow Conservative leaders in the two unitary councils south of the Humber should have realised the fury, albeit couched in diplomatic language, they would be unleashing from the leaders of Lincolnshire’s district councils by their approach to the Minister of State for Local Government.

They must have known that their proposals, apparently without consulting the districts, to create two unitary councils between the Humber and the Wash, which would mean the abolition of the latter, would surely have produced the reaction it did, even though all but one council is currently Tory controlled. So much for party unity — but, as they say, “turkeys don’t vote for Christmas”.

As someone who has served at all levels of local government (parish, district and county), I know that all councils do their best in their own way to provide cost effective services to their electors. What I have felt for many years, however, is that there are just too many councils and too many councillors.

Let’s not forget that, when people moan about “the council,” which one do they mean? Yes, people are often confused as to which council is responsible for which service. Indeed, given how much power has been removed from local councils and sucked into central government or the private sector over many years, it’s not surprising that they play so small a role in people’s lives today, hence the often pathetic turnout in county and district council elections, and the inability of most parish councils to find sufficient numbers of candidates to trigger an election in the first place,

Since the 1972 Act of Parliament set up the present system of local government in England and Wales quite a few English areas have switched from a three tier (parish/town, district, county) to a two tier (parish/town, unitary) system and made considerable savings.

The move to reconsider the set up in England started with the Banham Report in the early 1990s, which saw the emergence of North and North East Lincolnshire Councils (Cllr Hill’s new ‘partners’) from the abolition of the little loved Humberside and continued into the 2000s with areas like Hereford & Worcester, Dorset, Wiltshire and Northumberland Unitary Councils, to name just a few.

Besides the savings in senior officers, much of the confusion and, in some cases, duplication, was swept away. Two examples immediately come to mind in our present set up. When you put your bin(s) out each week, it’s your district council that empties them, but it’s your county council that disposes of the waste.

When a developer puts in plans to build some houses, it’s usually the district council that grants that permission; but it has to consult the County Council Highways Department to see if there are any objections or recommendations, which it is entitled then to ignore (and, believe me, it sometimes did when I served on my local district council). Perhaps if such decision making had been under one roof, so to speak, we might not have the dog’s breakfast of infrastructure that has been allowed to evolve in places like greater Lincoln or Boston, to give just two examples.

Back in the days of Banham, the response from Lincolnshire was very revealing. All seven districts and the county council applied individually to become unitary councils, and hereby lies the problem. When it comes to having a single council being responsible for most services, size really does matter. Districts might be closer to the ‘people’, but, in my opinion, they lack the financial clout to make things happen.

A county council, with a much larger budget, might have the financial clout, but, in the case of Lincolnshire, is too large geographically and remote to react effectively to local circumstances. So ideally, a unitary council should serve a population of around 250,000 people. Lincolnshire’s population alone is now around 732,000 and is spread out over a large area, served by inadequate roads. I used to feel sorry for some of my former county councillor colleagues, who had a round trip of well over 100 miles to attend meetings.

It’s interesting to note that Sir John Banham actually suggested to the leaders of City of Lincoln Council and North Kesteven District Council after their submissions went in, that they put in a joint bid for a combined unitary council. At the time Lincoln was firmly in the hands of the Labour Party, while NKDC was true blue. Need I say more? In any case, it might well have been rejected as many of Sir John’s recommendations were. By the time of the next review nearly twenty years ago, all parties in the county put forward ‘The Lincolnshire Way’, in other words, leave well alone.

Part of any package towards the streamlining and simplification of local government (space here doesn’t permit discussion of the much needed reform of local government finance) has got to include the role of the parish/town councils. The problem here is that these bodies vary so much.

From my experience there are three types of parish council, the proactive, the reactive and the inactive. Offering enhanced powers to get things done to this level of local government might encourage more people to stand for them and avoid the co-option that appears to be the norm in many areas. Whether even the ‘proactive’ councils would have the courage to take up any offer is under the present arrangements debatable.

The City of Lincoln offers a different challenge. Historically, as a ‘borough’, the city used to have far more powers than it has today. There are good reasons why it should continue to have more than, say, the typical town. However, with an urban population of under 100,000 and because of its geography, being unable to expand except on what is a flood plain in Swanpool, it hardly fits the bill as an ideal unitary authority, despite its obvious economic importance to the county as a whole.

Any attempt to increase its size would involve swallowing up some of the areas around, which last happened back in the 1920s when it ‘acquired’ Swallowbeck from North Hykeham (an attempt to take over its small neighbour completely was thwarted by local opposition in the 1960s). As Lincoln sees no need to have parishes within its boundary, perhaps a specially enhanced status could allow it to carry on much as before as a district council in all but name.

So, whether we have two unitaries from the Humber to the Wash or three, whether the division is north to south or east to west is for discussion. Don’t get me wrong. District Councils don’t do a bad job under the circumstances, and you would probably be surprised at the number of councillors, who wear two hats, namely, who sit on both district and county councils (an opportunity for a conflict of interest, AND a nice little earner, the cynic might say?).

Let’s just bring it on — but only if the government is prepared to provide a bit more meat on the bone by devolving more power and fiscal responsibility from the centre. Then, after this, we might look at regional government in England on a par with that in the other three nations of our currently Disunited Kingdom.

Now the government is offering local authorities the powers to control lockdowns as COVID-19 continues to plague our lives. You might argue that this is yet another example of central government asking local government to do its dirty work for it, as it did largely with austerity cuts from 2010. On the other hand the latter’s response could be viewed as a way for local government to show it has the capability and resilience to do a bigger job, and thus enhance its case for more devolved powers.

John Marriott is a former Lib Dem county councillor for Hykeham. A former Head of Languages at the North Kesteven School, he represented Hykeham Forum Division on the Lincolnshire County Council. From 1987 to 2011 he was a member of the North Hykeham Town Council and also served for 18 years on the North Kesteven District Council, finally standing down in 2007. He has lived in Hykeham since 1977.

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