The House of Lords is my new arena from which to campaign for devolution
Cllr Sharon Taylor, vice-chair, District Councils’ network
As I contemplate my impending departure from my role as a District Councils’ Network vice chair, I keep recalling a scene at a motorway service station somewhere in the Midlands in the late noughties. It was at this unlikely venue that the DCN was in effect born.
Alongside the Conservative Tom Dodd, leader of Chiltern District Council, and his chief executive Alan Goodrum, I was one of the founders of what was then called the District Council Sounding Board. This fledgling body had few resources – it was an uphill struggle to regain the funds held by the long defunct Association of District Councils. And it was an event greater uphill struggle to regain the prestige of the district sector, which had long been forgotten in the central corridors of power.
We have come a long way.
The DCN now provides an incredibly strong and respected voice for district councils. The cross-party nature of our organisation gives it credibility and reach.
It is now routine for our chairman Sam Chapman-Allen to have a weekly meeting with the Department for Levelling Up, Housing & Communities, whether with the Secretary of State, ministers or senior officials. Such a close relationship seemed implausible 15 years ago.
So much of the power of districts lies in our proximity to our communities, and this has resonated with national politicians. No tier of government has the knowledge of its population like we do. The case for our greater empowerment is compelling and even though I will leave the DCN at the turn of the year I will continue making that case.
The reason for my departure is my peerage, which was announced last week. I will be a working peer and have therefore decided to step down as leader of Stevenage Borough Council – a position I have had the honour to hold, shaping the direction of my home town, for the past 16 years. The DCN’s top political roles are of course for council leaders – so I must move on. My arena may be shifting from Smith Square to the red benches but my focus will remain on local government, district councils in particular.
There is much to fight for to ensure district councils remain healthy and effective. All too often devolution has meant giving powers to larger organisations, away from local communities. If you are devolving social care or children’s services powers then, fair enough, give it to our partners at the county level. But all too often the county has been the default option. If you want to empower communities, then we want to see far greater devolution of housing, waste, environment, leisure and culture at a district level. And you have to ensure these services are properly funded.
Districts are effective – our performance during the pandemic, delivering £9bn of business support grants for instance, and our work to house tens of thousands of Ukrainians has been exemplary. And we have long been the driving force for growth in our areas, working in partnership with local employers. In the case of Stevenage, we work closely with Airbus and range of businesses, big and small, and are investing in redeveloping our New Town centre. We also use our intense knowledge of our communities to target our support towards the people who most require it – an essential function even far before the current cost-of-living crisis.
The case for district empowerment is strong. The DCN will continue to make it and so will I. While I will no longer be a DCN vice-chair, I will forever be a friend of district councils.