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Labour candidate: council merger plans need rigorous scrutiny

Plans to merge certain Richmond and Wandsworth Council services raise important questions of local democracy and should be closely scrutinised, Labour Parliamentary candidate Nick Grant has said in a letter to the Richmond & Twickenham Times.

Dear Sir,

The proposed merger of certain services between Richmond and Wandsworth Councils raises important questions of local democracy. In the current economic situation no-one can be critical of the general ambition, namely greater efficiency and less management duplication. But behind the headline will inevitably lurk more profound questions of detail going to the heart of our representative system.

We have seen examples of councils beginning to draw back from true accountability by way of wholesale programmes of outsourcing. In some cases, particularly where long term contracts for services have been let, it is now difficult to see quite what residents are able to change with their vote at election time. The potential for an erosion of accountability, however gradual, means that every change in Council organisation should be rigorously scrutinised.

I personally am not convinced that the cost of a referendum is warranted over a sharing of management. I could think of many better homes for that kind of money, including of course, actual homes. Nonetheless every step needs to examined. I have two suggestions.

First, on transparency. I have never known a merger of true equals: in negotiations something is always compromised by someone. Indeed the recent history of coalition formation in this country shows all too clearly that if the junior partner is not to be side-lined and find its identity gradually evaporate, there must be transparency and certainty at the outset. The negotiating rules, the red lines of principle, should be published to the people of both boroughs before substantive talks progress much further. At the end of the process the residents of Richmond must be able to see what has been left behind.

Secondly, on legitimacy. It would not be right for such important change to be decided by an administration that wasn't elected with this merger as part of its programme. Nor would it be right for scrutiny of any proposal to be left entirely to the official opposition. The Richmond Council chamber is only temporarily the exclusive preserve of the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats. Other parties of substance, including my own, have a legitimate interest in its future and must be involved. Ordinary consultation has a bad name in our borough.

The proposed Sovereignty Guarantee is a start but at too high a level. To me as a lawyer one of Wandsworth Council's "key points", that states "nothing in these proposals is intended to stop the Councils developing local ideas", rings alarm bells. How about "will not stop the development of local ideas"?

Nick Grant

Labour Party parliamentary candidate for Twickenham



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