It was the only upset in an otherwise predictable set of results at the borough council elections in June – Peter Lidstone taking St John’s for the Lib Dems. He is today one of only three Lib Dems on the council. There are also two from Labour. The remaining 43 are Conservatives. We invited the ‘new boy on the block’ to write a regular column offering his views and thoughts on politics and the council chamber.
Localism. It sounds great from the dispatch box when David Cameron or Theresa May boast about giving power back to local communities to make key decisions. However, promises at Prime Ministers’ Questions must translate into real policy in order for them to have any effect. In reality I too often see the opposite.
Take planning for example. There is a shortage of housing across the country. The Government pledges to ‘get Britain building’. The means chosen by the Conservatives has been to impose top-down housing targets onto local authorities. This places local councils under pressure; development site plans are drawn up, then the government moves the goalposts, and increases targets. This puts private developers in a great position, as it makes it hard for councils to challenge their proposed developments.
Extra households need support services like schools, doctors’ surgeries, hospitals and public transport. Yet piecemeal development rarely delivers these due to lack of space and lower returns. The existing residents have to compete for increasingly scarce resources, especially in the South East.
It appears that this is being recognised at council level, and support is mounting for a new settlement complete with necessary infrastructure. This seems to me to be a logical solution.
Then consider fracking. Once again, a promise is made by David Cameron to lead the greenest government ever.
Yet the decision has been made to pursue fracking – an energy-intensive means of extracting fossil fuel – in spite of local objections on environmental and safety grounds. When the objections of over 4,300 people in Yorkshire make no difference, you have to ask whether talk of localism and green government is really anything other than hot air.
And these effects are compounded by the withdrawal of local funding by central government.
The Government has pledged to allow local councils to keep their locally generated business rates by 2020.
However until this comes into fruition, councils are facing a funding crisis. Tunbridge Wells’ Revenue Support Grant will have been cut from over £4.5m in 2010 to £0 by 2019. The Council’s only means of survival will be by diligent financial management.
The Lib Dems believe in localism – partly borne out of necessity, as we do not have the Conservatives’ level of financial backing. But mainly due to a conviction that local people are best placed to make decisions about their interests. Choices are not always straightforward for Councils to make, but we will always try to put the interests of residents at the heart of our policies and hold the Council to account over how they spend your council tax.
The youngest member of Tunbridge Wells Borough Council, aged 32, Peter Lidstone is a Liberal Democrat councillor and was the only candidate to successfully dislodge a Conservative opponent at the last local elections. With a full-time job as part of the charity Build Africa, the former law student of the University of the West of England is also fluent in French. His interest in politics came after attending a conference on the subject at Christian Aid about why Christians should get involved.