The difference a Labour council can make
Largely unnoticed by the national media, obsessed as ever by the London results, the former mining area of Amber Valley in Derbyshire went Labour for the first time in 14 years at last month’s local elections.
The impact of the Labour victory was obvious to everyone present, not least the sitting Tory MP whose parting comments to the local media about his own position that ‘it was hard to be confident’ about next year’s general election summed up what we all knew about the Tories in Amber Valley.
The seeds of our victory were laid last summer. Week in and week out, with only a short break over Christmas, local party members and our candidate, Kevin Gillott, were out on the doorstep campaigning. Door knocking and listening to people really does make a difference. And it was from our conversations on the doorstep that our programme and priorities were shaped. The issue raised were round public services, toilets, dog fouling and car parking – those mundane things that are important to people.
Just as importantly, they said that they felt powerless to change things. The centralisation of power that started in the 1970s has gone too far and is undermining our democracy. Local government is a shadow of what it used to be when I first came into politics and what power we do have is so governed by rules and codes that little local discretion remains. House building in particular has been a major issue in Amber Valley as the last Tory administration tried to force upon communities massive new housing developments. Yes, we have to build more houses, but if you change the nature of communities in the process, destroying their sense of identity, you only feed that sense of powerlessness.
Our manifesto was not as ambitious as in previous years due to the damning effect of the cuts to local government funding streams by the coalition government and 14 years of outsourcing by the previous Tory administration. Like most authorities, Amber valley took the ‘Pickles gold’ and as a consequence have a declining council tax base, which is only storing up problems to be faced three years down the line – something confirmed by the LGA who we are working with to make the council more effective and efficient. We have started a with a programme of changing the priorities of the previous administration within our existing budgets and working with our Labour county council colleagues to share resources and facilities as well working with neighbouring authorities over the county boundary to develop shared regeneration areas along the Derbyshire – Nottinghamshire border, including the potential for a tram system.
At our first meeting we created a community fund for the 11 most deprived areas in the council, which happen by coincidence to be predominately Labour seats. We have also reduced the number of cabinet posts to demonstrate our commitment to efficiency. And we have agreed to support the bicentenary of the ‘Pentrich Revolution’, which has been referred to as England’s last revolution, promoting radical Labour history and using it as a basis to promote tourism. We will be working with the local, regional and national ‘green energy’ companies to promote an annual environmental fair, cancelled by the Tories 14 years previously.
This community has seen off a strong British National party challenge in earlier elections. We used our control of the local town and parish councils along with the control of the county council to demonstrate that we are not all the same.
Finally, on a topical note, the company who developed the goal line technology for the world cup is based in Amber Valley at Heanor and hopefully we can build on hi-tech industries to help drive the local economy forward with quality, high-skilled jobs for a former coal mining area.
Paul Jones is leader of Amber Valley borough council
Photo: Louisa Thomson