The leaders of South Norfolk Council and Stratford-on-Avon DC are to go head-to-head in an election to become the next chair of the District Councils’ Network.
LGC reported on Monday how Neil Clarke (Con) was stepping down from the role after six years in charge.
The DCN chair is picked from the party which controls the majority of the 201 districts, 143 of which are Conservative controlled.
South Norfolk’s John Fuller and Stratford’s Chris Saint have put themselves forward for the role. Voting forms will be sent out tomorrow and the winner will be officially unveiled at the Local Government Association conference next month.
LGC spoke to both candidates.
John Fuller: First elected to South Norfolk Council in 2003, Cllr Fuller became leader in 2007. A career in manufacturing and agriculture has given Cllr Fuller commercial experience. A member of the DCN executive for six years, Cllr Fuller is also the Conservative lead on finances and resources, and sits of the business rates task and finish group. He is also on the national joint council (NJC) which is responsible for pay negotiations as well as the Local Government Pension Scheme and fire service pension board.
Chris Saint: A chartered electrical engineer, Cllr Saint has been a district councillor for 25 years – the last six of which he has served as leader. Cllr Saint, who has also been a county councillor for 17 years, has been a member of the DCN’s executive for five years. Stratford’s non-constituent membership of the West Midlands Combined Authority has meant Cllr Saint engages with metropolitan councils as well as mayor Andy Street (Con). Cllr Saint also sits on the NJC.
John Fuller: The South Norfolk leader is seeking greater recognition that districts, as planning and housing authorities, “build the national economy one local economy at a time”. Cllr Fuller also wants districts to get more “levers to grow” economies through increased powers over the use of land and capital resources, and increasing borrowing capabilities. He said districts were “best placed” to solve social problems and help “prevent the problems of tomorrow”. Ensuring districts protect and enhance the quality of life is another priority.
Chris Saint: The “big issue” is securing the role of district councils as planning and housing authorities, said Cllr Saint. He said the emergence of combined authorities meant those “vital” roles were “a little bit under threat in some places”. A source of “frustration” for district councils was the fact Public Health England received the “lion’s share of the public health budget”. Cllr Saint said he would argue for “the delegation of more budgets”, including districts gaining more of the funding directed to county councils.
Working with the County Councils Network
John Fuller: Cllr Fuller, who has never served as a county councillor, said he was “not anti-county” and added he wanted to “tone down some of the rhetoric and have a more mature debate” about how two-tier areas can work together. While wanting to find “common ground”, Cllr Fuller said he was “not a soft touch”. He said districts recognised the financial pressures top-tier councils faced in relation to social care but added districts had a “complimentary role” to play in helping to ease the burden. “I’m not saying one tier is better than the other,” he said. “We just do different things and we have got to get along. If not, central government, whatever colour, will seek to divide us.”
Chris Saint: Cllr Saint said he would “strongly oppose” any attempt by county councils to strengthen their role within the Local Government Association if it is at the expense of districts. He said resolving this debate was “one of the key issues”. He said the two types of council “simply have got different things to do”. Cllr Saint said it was “vitally important” top-tier councils have the funding required for social care. He added giving districts greater control of public health budgets to invest in preventative measures would allow top-tier councils to “get more out of the budgets they have got”.
The future of business rates
John Fuller: While admitting the reforms do “seem under threat”, Cllr Fuller said the previous target of implementing 100% retention nationally in 2019-20 was “challenging”. Any delay, however, will allow the four-year funding settlements to be “honoured” and provide more time to “learn and reflect” from the pilot areas, he said.
Chris Saint: Cllr Saint said he “can’t believe [the reforms] won’t come back” in the next parliament but added it was “vitally important the DCN is in the forefront” of those discussions” and any future modelling as to how the system would work.
Views on reorganisation?
John Fuller: Any unitary representing more than 500,000 people would be too big, said Cllr Fuller. While it would be “useful to have some better ground rules from government” on reorganisation, he added: “If change is to come it needs to recognise districts are the building blocks of that change.”
Chris Saint: While county unitaries “in some areas might be appropriate, in others it certainly would not”, said Cllr Saint. He added there should be “local solutions” wherever possible.