In this month’s Democracy Café we debated the question of a land tax a proposal which has appeared from time to time – most recently in the 2019 Labour Party manifesto – but it never lives to see the light of day. Part of our discussion was taken up with how the Normans established the pattern of ownership in England following the invasion. Some families who own estates, can trace their lineage back to the Normans even today.
I was minded, during the discussion, of a book by, I believe, Martin Shaw (not the actor) who used to be the County Planning Officer for Norfolk (where coincidentally the actor comes from) who wrote a book about shire county councils and how they worked up until quite recently. Unfortunately, I lent the book to someone and I cannot find it or its title on the internet. He described how shire counties like Norfolk used to be run essentially by its landed interests. For them, a rural county was an ideal form of life. They had the time and money to be able to take part in local politics and from their ranks, many county and district councillors were elected. Those who worked the land could not get, or afford, the time off and so the whole issue of rural poverty and disadvantage never got a hearing.
Wiltshire was similar in many respects. Wiltshire is unique in that it is the only county not to have a university except for tiny Rutland. What is now the University of Bath was intended for Wiltshire. Someone close to the negotiations at the time said the idea of a university was not universally welcomed by those in power in County Hall. Likewise, the dire state of roads in the county was also as a result of the landowning interests not wanting or needing to improve communications. They believed in small government, long before the phrase became popular, and county council meetings started at 2pm with the intention of ending by 3pm at the latest. After a good lunch of course. As the main aim was to do little and invest even less, this was not difficult. A senior highways engineer told me they did not want improved communications or roads because it would encourage their workers to look elsewhere. I have no way of knowing if this was true but it was said with feeling.
I can see echoes of this thinking in the decisions of county hall even today. A kind of remoteness and an approach based on ‘we know best’. When a group of us met the leader of the County Council at the beginning of austerity, their easy acceptance – relish even – for cutting funds in the county was very evident. There were words of regret but the readiness to cut funding was easy to see. They talk ‘consultation’ but this is more ‘this is what we plan to do, do you like it? No? Tough, that’s what’s been decided.’ When the idea of citizens’ assemblies is put to them, the idea is politely received then during a public meeting in the Guildhall, it is nowhere to be seen.
There is now a move to get more independents elected onto the City Council. I suspect this is born of a frustration with continued mismanagement, not especially by the City Council itself, but by their paymasters in Trowbridge. Will this succeed? As a Scottish colleague of mine used to say ‘I ha’ ma’ douts.’ One problem is a collection of independents is not a party almost by definition. Will they be able to collaborate sufficiently to counter the established parties? Maybe, maybe not.
Secondly, the City Council is a parish council. This is really an absurd state of affairs. I was never a fan of the district council but at least it was local. A city whose administration is a parish council: bizarre.
Chalk and Cheese? This is probably a Wiltshire saying coming from when, in the immediate area of Salisbury, they could only rear sheep on the chalk. West and north they could raise cattle and produce cheese. Hence in Salisbury market there were two parts and the cheese was sold outside what is now HSBC bank. It seems to be a metaphor for the state of affairs we have in the county today with decisions taken in the north of the county and often seem divorced and irrelevant to the south.
Perhaps we need to think differently and divide Wiltshire into two counties: North Wiltshire and South Wiltshire? North would continue to run from Trowbridge – after all they seem to have spent millions on the building there. The south would need to be decided and not necessarily Salisbury. Save our Salisbury could perhaps direct part of their efforts to this endeavour. It is likely to reap better dividends and more locally based local government than we have now.
It leaves the baleful influence of the landed interests still quietly evident. They can continue, behind the scenes, to select their own. The only way to counter this is to enliven local democracy. More independents in a South Wiltshire County Council which has the powers of a county, could make a real difference.