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Thursday, 24 July 2014

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Chris Whiteside says improving services means using money better

WHOEVER wins the next few elections, and regardless of whether Britain stays in the EU, the days when governments and councils had lots of money to spend are gone. Nothing any party can do will bring them back for many years.

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CHRIS WHITESIDE: Chairman of Cumbria area Conservatives and a candidate in the European elections

The problem is debt. Between profligate spending – four pounds for every three coming in – bank bailouts, and recession, the last government doubled Britain’s debt to £1.2 trillion. We pay interest on that debt every year – which means less money for hospitals, police, and schools. By 2010 the last government was spending more money paying interest payments on its debts than on schools.

Tough decisions made by the coalition government have reduced the deficit – the rate the debt goes up – and the risk of a complete financial meltdown (think Greece or Cyprus). But the debt is still there. The only reason it isn’t – yet – an even worse millstone round Britain’s neck is rock bottom interest rates. Even at these low rates, interest payments will cost £58 million in 2015/16 – twice the defence budget. As the economy recovers, interest rates must rise to generate savings for businesses to invest and encourage people to save for old age. By 2017 debt interest may reach £70 billion pa – more than the Home Office and education budgets put together.

That’s why any politician who proposes to borrow more deserves to be locked up in a straightjacket under section II of the mental health act as a menace to his fellow-citizens. Look at France. The French elected President Hollande because he promised an end to austerity – but he couldn’t deliver it, and his party was massacred last week in local elections. With some votes going to the National Front.

Proposals to improve national or local services must be based on using money better. For example, does Cumbria need seven county and district councils with 371 councillors and seven chief executives – or could we have better services with two or three unitary authorities and a quarter the number of councillors? A West Cumbrian unitary council might deliver other benefits too, through understanding the area and its main industry better, not just cost savings.

Latvia, a small Baltic country, has made huge strides in using e-democracy to devolve more power to citizens at minimal cost. Can we learn from them?

I didn’t originally support an elected mayor for Copeland as I preferred the committee system. But with the referendum combined with the Euro-election, and if the mayor is elected at the same time as other councillors, there’s no good reason why it should cost taxpayers more. Powers of an elected mayor and his or her cabinet would be similar to those of the present CBC executive. If we have an executive system, why not one in which all residents, not just a party caucus, choose the head of that executive?

We won’t be able to try to solve problems by throwing money at them in the foreseeable future. It’s time to throw democracy, creativity and brainpower at problems instead.

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