What’s the point of place?
Last week, whilst waiting for a meeting in a local council building, I noticed a map of my local and surrounding area hanging on the wall. I enjoy perusing a good map, so I found myself wandering over and scrutinising the lines and blobs which set out the places I knew so well.
I then noticed that the intention of this particular map was not simply to show where places currently are, but to show where they will be in future. I found that the redrawing of political boundary lines currently going through the motions has moved where I live from one area to another, joining my local area with one which, growing up and to this day, is seen by every local person as an entirely separate and distinct place.
Apparently it goes further, also bringing an area from a neighbouring borough, which geographically is on the other side of an A-road and a sizable lake and has an equally distinct and historic identity.
Whilst I understand the rationale behind these plans politically, the results are frankly quite worrying for me as both a resident and an local authority officer, and here’s why.
Firstly, from the arguably more important resident’s point of view, the problems are both real and imagined. They are imagined in that one of the definitions of where I live is the place names and boundaries that have governed it for my entire life. Living in place A meant that I identified with it and grew to love it, for all its social and economic issues, and part of that identification came by knowing that we were a different group from those in places B and C. For arguments sake, we were content that whilst our lives weren’t as good as those who lived in place B, at least we were far better off than place C.
With these changing boundary lines however we are being grouped into one homogenous lump and will be expected to make do. In theory this isn’t much of a problem – we will still describe ourselves as living in place A whatever happens – but when any concerns begin to be escalated to involve politicians things start to get tricky.
The needs of residents in places A and C (and I hope you’re staying with me here) are far more basic than those in place B, as they are far more deprived and face very different issues. Residents in place B historically have raised concerns about flower beds, allotments and parking outside places of worship. Residents in place C typically are more concerned about drug abuse, gangs (the real kind, not the groups of kids hanging about outside a KFC), chronic health problems, mass unemployment and teenage pregnancy. And place A falls somewhere between the two, potentially resulting in none of its concerns appearing important enough to warrant any attention.
Most of these concerns would still be addressed through local mechanisms, and as these places span two separate authorities they will be dealt with in different ways. However, some problems invariably move on to gain the attention of MPs, who should always remember their local constituency whatever their role in central government. The challenges they will face when representing ever more diverse needs will be huge, and could lead to a real divide appearing in the relationship between residents and their elected representatives. Whilst this is not a big P political blog, it is not farfetched to believe that this disassociation will transfer easily to people’s relationships with local councillors.
Then there are the problems from an officer’s point of view. Working in a local authority there is limited involvement with Members of Parliament during the normal course of business, with a few notable areas of exception. Local government has local politics and councillors to satisfy the democratic demands of local people. However, MP involvement is certainly not unheard of, and in any case there are the party level interactions and concerns to consider.
Under the current system, MPs generally work within the boundaries of a single local authority, so engage with a single group of officers, councillors and residents to improve their constituency for all. Under these new proposals these same MPs will be required to work with two different groups of people and two different organisations, each with very different local political setups and bureaucratic procedures.
For most residents this is going to make no difference to their daily lives whatsoever. They will still describe where they live in the same way, will still expect their council to collect their bins and will (hopefully) pop along to the polls every now and then to vote for whichever candidate has the right logo next to their name. As we have discussed in the past, most local people care not one jot where the boundary lines are drawn, only that they receive the services they require to help them go about their daily lives in ignorant bliss of the efforts of local government.
But for some residents, and for some not-so-simple situations, it’s all just got a lot more messy.
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