It seems everyone’s favourite Medway Labour councillor Tristan Osborne is up to his well-worn tricks.
In this post following last night’s meeting of the Full Council, Cllr Osborne accused the Tories of twisting history to suit their rhetoric on low Medway’s Council Tax. It is an accusation he has levelled before, and I consider it a personal failure that I have, thus far, allowed it to continue unchecked.
You see, dear reader, the delicious irony is that, in making his argument, Cllr Osborne is, himself, twisting history to suit his rhetoric – and it does not take much examination of the facts to see his mis-truths unravel.
On the low level of Council Tax the Conservatives inherited from Labour when it took control of a minority administration in 2000, Cllr Osborne states:
Structurally, the real reason we have relative low Council Tax is the creation of the Unitary Authority which, and unlike in wider Kent, means our residents largely only have one level of local government;
It stands to reason that streamlining services to be run from one bureaucracy instead of two bureaucracies is likely to lighten the financial burden on the taxpayer, and the notion has a very conservative feel about it. Yet Cllr Osborne then adds that it was:
a policy implemented under Labour as we ran the Council and government at time.
Ah, so it is a matter of timing, yes? Well, yes, actually it is, but not for the reasons he implies.
It is, of course, true that Medway Council officially took control of local services in 1998, when the national government was Labour-run. However, with such a wide-ranging purview and population, the task facing this new authority meant that it could not simply be two borough councils and a county council one day and a unitary authority the next.
No, a great deal of planning needed to go into preparing the new authority to govern Medway, to which end a shadow authority was created before the handover to examine issues, including the likely necessary budget and how to preserve city status when the Borough of Rochester-upon-Medway was abolished. It is true that this shadow authority was almost 50% Labour (not an overall majority, which they have never achieved since the authority was created), but it was elected at the same time as the Labour government: 1 May 1997.
Hang on! I hear you cry. A shadow authority elected at the same time as the Labour government? How can that be if Cllr Osborne is correct in asserting that Medway Council exists because of the Labour government?
The answer is obvious.
The history of local governance in Medway is long and varied and it would not add much to the present discussion to replicate it here. The pertinent question relates to the merging of the Boroughs of Gillingham and Rochester-upon-Medway and how it came about. The answer to said question is simple, and it all goes back to a gentleman by the name of John Banham.
Following an Act of Parliament in 1992, Banham was tasked with chairing the Local Government Commission for England. The Commission was asked to review the structure of local government and, when John Gummer became Secretary of State for the Environment in 1993, he issued revised guidance to the Commission, whose progress had been slow:
In some areas the commission may wish to recommend a continuation of the existing two-tier structure. But the government expects that to be the exception, and that the result will be a substantial increase in the number of unitary authorities in both urban and rural areas.
Although this guidance was successfully challenged in the High Court and revised, it made clear the Conservative government’s intentions to introduce great numbers of unitary authorities. Yet the Banham Review decided to leave Kent’s two-tier system unchanged and, shortly after making his final report, John Banham resigned from his post. In a speech to the House of Commons announcing this (amongst other things), John Gummer stated that the commission, under a new chairman, would take a different approach:
I intend to ask the commission to carry out fresh reviews of a short list of selected districts … I believe that those new reviews must be carried out by a reconstituted commission which can look at the cases afresh … The areas I have in mind to be covered by the new reviews are: … the Medway towns–that is, Rochester upon Medway and Gillingham
Later in that same debate, Gillingham’s (Conservative) MP Jim Couchman said:
I welcome the decision to call for the new or revised commission to review the Medway towns. My right hon. Friend will know from his personal knowledge that the redevelopment of the Medway towns is absolutely critical to their future prosperity and that for planning, transportation and urban redevelopment, the Medway towns are seen as a whole.
The call will be welcomed by all the political parties, with the exception of the Gillingham Liberals, who got up to some extraordinary stunts during the consultation.
Mr Gummer replied:
I very much agree with my hon. Friend: the great and ancient towns of Chatham and Rochester joined to make a single authority–with rural areas about them, but centrally those two authorities–because they knew that it was necessary for the future of their community. In many of the regeneration areas of the Medway towns, it is difficult to draw the line between Gillingham and Rochester upon Medway. Indeed, only those who have long lived there–it is probably why the Liberals do not understand this– know where the boundary is. Those who care about Rochester upon Medway and Gillingham are very concerned about the regeneration possibilities and the great hope that comes to that area of the country. I think that they will want at least the advantages–as well as the disadvantages, for there may be some–of unitary status to be considered.
The new commission was chaired by Sir David Cooksey and ultimately recommended the abolition of the two borough councils of Gillingham and Rochester-upon-Medway and the creation of the single-tier Medway Towns Council in September 1995. This was enacted by the excitingly-titled The Kent (Borough of Gillingham and City of Rochester upon Medway) (Structural Change Order) 1996, signed on 18th July 1996 by Conservative Minister David Curry and which created the shadow authority to be elected on 1st May 1997 with the new council proper being born on 1st April 1998.
All the foundations for the better-value-for-money unitary authority, including the Statutory Instrument which created it, were laid by the Conservatives, and any suggestion that its existence is down to Labour is surely taxing the truth to the extreme.