To be proud of our district, we must be proud of our council, too

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A planning committee meeting taking place in the Guildhall

Very few people really care about what happens in the city council. That’s sad, but true.

Indeed, the relationship between most people and our council is, I suspect, one of utter indifference.

Except when things go wrong with the services it provides, who has time to even worry about what it does or how?

So an obsession with council affairs can be considered at best slightly eccentric and at worst a precursor of insanity.

We ought, though, to be concerned about this disconnection between the people and the public bodies that deliver services to them because it means that Canterbury City Council – and, of course, Kent County Council – cannot claim to be properly representing the people it serves or meeting their needs if they are not engaged with it.

But more importantly such a disconnection removes the democratic credibility of the Council.

What brought all this to mind was a lengthy article on the Grenfell Tower tragedy which, among many other terrible problems, discussed the absolute hatred which some residents have for the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea (RBKC), its elected councillors and their officers.

To sum that up: everyone connected with RKBC, regardless of their role or their actions or their personal beliefs was being stigmatised by some residents as part of a plot to remove working class people and recent immigrants from the borough.

The author of the piece Andrew O’Hagan writes: “A council is a body of the people, elected by the people and paid for by them, and Britain has generally believed in town and borough councils.

“I began to wonder if it really was the council that people were angry with, or was it authority in general or unfairness in principle? 

Now, in general I don’t think we have the sense of betrayal in Canterbury that appears to exist in RBKC.

I’ve seen a few individuals behave badly towards both our former MP and to councillors, always about topics that have exercised them personally, like the Oval development in Whitstable, or the Westgate Towers traffic trial a few years back. But overall there is no sense of outrage.

Our councillors may not be perfect, and for sure we have our share of the pompous and pretentious, as well as a few who appear to be incapable of independent thought.

While I don’t share the views of the Tory majority on almost any issues, I accept, and I think most other people do too, that they are trying to do what they believe is the right thing.

If we can’t bring ourselves to accept the simple premise that most people who stand as councillors are not doing it for personal gain or self-aggrandisement – there being generally no opportunity for the first and very little chance of the latter – then we undermine the principle of democracy.

How? Because in effect those who lose elections, or fail to participate in them as voters, allow themselves the luxury of denying the victors the right to take decisions while failing to accept their role in reaching that position.

I happen to think the Tories make assumptions about human motivation which are at best wrong and at worst baseless.

They ascribe their own views about economics and morality to the whole world, and they have a belief about how the private sector works which is a fantasy.

All that leads them to solutions for the delivery of public services which fail to provide the right services, give far too much power to contractors, and assume that the electorate at large will respond in a way other than apathy. None of that is correct.

But it supports the cycle of disengagement between the voters and the elected, and it leads to what O’Hagan calls the “the unintended consequences of a market-led approach to public goods.

It is such a shame that behaviour like this has led to the level of betrayal felt in RBKC.

While we are a long way short of that in Canterbury, councils cannot behave like this indefinitely and retain either the respect of voters or the right to be in power.

And frankly, if we want people to have pride in their district and towns, then they need to be proud of their council, too. So it must change the way it operates. Not only by making meetings accessible but by genuinely adopting a culture of openness and explaining its decisions clearly.

All of us, no matter our political position, have to work towards that if we are to protect our democracy.

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