SIR - The Prime Minister’s vision of a ‘Big Society’ is not easy to define, but, in these times of stringency and change, if it is to mean something in conservative Sidmouth then, just perhaps, it should be seen as a challenge to ‘those who wish to see the valley continue as a very special place in which to live, to stand as candidates in the Town Council elections in May, in Wards with which they have a close connection.
At the Town Council elections four years ago, 17 of the 19 seats were returned unopposed, with three candidates for the other two seats, so, effectively, only one of the 19 seats was in contention. That is not local democracy working well, much less a ‘Big Society’.
What is surprising about this poverty of interest in standing for the Town Council is that unpaid, voluntary work, is the very bedrock of Sidmouth as a community; not just the scintillating high-lights such as the rescue of Kennaway House or the Walkway, but the ‘run of the mill’, every day work which so largely goes unrecognised. Perhaps the formal, now paid, work of a Town Councillor does not appeal, if so, this concern should be put aside in the interest of the community.
The District Council, when it came into being in 1973, took on responsibilities which it exercised for just a little more than 30 years, when, obliged to keep its precept low, it opted out, leaving Town and Parish Councils, who get no part of the ‘business rate’, and whose only source of finance is a tax on homes, to pick up the bill.
Partly as a result of the District Council’s cut back, Sidmouth Town Council’s precept has risen by 119 percent over this time. Even so, at Band D, it still compares reasonably favourably with the cost of a tank full of petrol. Nevertheless, it still puts a heavier responsibility on Town Councillors as in an area from the sea to near Honiton, including Sidbury, possibly one of the larger villages in Devon not to want its own parish Council, there are many who receive little or no benefit from Town Council expenditure.
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These remarks should not be taken in any way as a criticism of our present Town Councillors, several of whom have served the valley with dedication for several years, while the current chairman has represented the Council in the Town with distinction.
What is so important, however, if the Town Council is to be seen, as it should, to be on a higher plane than others who seek to influence our future, but to do so without the same responsibility, then it must not rely simply on its legal right to be a consultee, important though that may be, but that by regular and meaningful elections its Members can rightly claim that they are the authentic voice of those they live among, who know them, and whose concerns and aspirations they share, and by whom they were elected.
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C K M Smith
1 Barton House