What do town councils do and what questions should I ask candidates?
Along with the chance to vote for Lewes District councillors on the 2nd May, you also have the chance to elect town councillors in Telscombe Cliffs, Peacehaven, Newhaven, Seaford and Lewes.
(There should have been elections for parish councillors too in rural areas, but in every parish there were too few people standing to need an election. In East Chiltington only two people stood. If you are interested, it is not too late to ask to be be co-opted.)
Because of the strange way council wards are organised some people will be able to vote for up to 8 councilors, whilst others will only be able to vote for one.
You can find out who is standing here (click on the PDF symbol)
SO WHAT DO TOWN COUNCILS DO?
Our town councils date back to 1974. Before that Newhaven, Seaford and Lewes had their own urban district councils, responsible for things like housing, environmental health, planning etc. In 1974 all this was taken away from them and the councils were given powers similar to that of a parish council
That caused problems. In parish councils the clerk has a huge amount of power. For example only they can call meetings. This has caused tensions. In the last 20 years nearly all of the local town councils have parted with their clerk acrimoniously on at least one occasion. Most recently there has been friction between the clerk and members at Peacehaven town council. In Lewes many people say that the town clerk runs the council while the members run around enjoying addressing each other as “councillor” and taking turns to be mayor. On the other hand one former town clerk claims that, after they reported a member for wrong doing, the member cornered them alone and threatened them with violence.
Town councils have few statutory duties- there are no services that the law says they have to provide. It would almost be true to say that they can do anything that county or district councils don’t do, within the limits of their budgets, except that on occasions they do overlap with other councils.
The money involved is small by the standards of larger councils, but can still be quite a bit. For example Lewes town council spends over a million pounds each year.
On occasions town councils give in to flummery. For example Lewes town council members have been known to dress up in robes. The town council spends about £3,000 on the ceremony of mayor making, which seems a bit much to spend on welcoming the new mayor in a town with three food banks.
WHAT TO THEY SPEND THEIR MONEY ON?
For many parish councils the big thing is running the village hall. So it is for town councils.
All our town councils have buildings that they own and use for their own meetings and rent out to community and other groups. Apart from the town hall Lewes has the All Saints Arts centre and Malling Community Centre, Newhaven has four buildings scattered around its various communities and Seaford has a band rehearsal space, an arts centre and the Martello tower museum.
These facilities cost a large proportion of the council’s money and it is worth asking candidates for the town council how they would manage these places better.
OPEN SPACES AND PLAYGROUNDS
Town councils own or manage some open spaces. The amount and number are something of a historical accident. The old urban district councils were responsible for parks and recreation, so responsibility for them tended to pass to Lewes District Council in 1974. But now the District is charging “special expenses” levies to local residents for these on the grounds that people in other parts of the district do not benefit from them. Town councils complain that, in this case, they should pass ownership of these parks to the town council. This is happening in a number of cases.
Peacehaven Town Council manages a new “Centenary Park” whilst Newhaven Town manages a cemetery. Seaford manages a large number of open spaces including the Salts recreation ground near the front. Telscombe manages Telscombe Tye and Lewes is responsible for Landport Bottom, and the Priory park.
You might also want to ask how candidates would improve the running of these spaces
Town and parish councils have a major role in the process of making a neighbourhood plan. The purpose of such a plan is to control development in the area. Lewes District Council or the South Downs National Park also have development plans and neighbourhood plans must not contradict them, but they can provide more detail. Once adopted, any development in the area must be considered against the neighbourhood plan.
The impetus from the plan may not come from the council itself. Often it comes from individual members of the community. Sometimes these members have complained that the town council was holding things up rather than progressing them.
So far as the Eye knows Lewes has a neighbourhood plan, while Seaford and Newhavens’ plans are in the process of being adopted
You might want to ask candidates what part they played in the neighbourhood plan or, if there is not one, whether they think there should be.
All town councils provide allotments.
A number of councils subsidise the bus services within their communities, either funding services that would not otherwise run, or paying to increase the frequency.
You could ask candidates what they think the council should be doing about bus subsidies
Town councils have the right to comment on planning applications, but they cannot decide them.
A number of councils provide seats in town, toilets, bike racks, bus shelters and litter bins.
Most councils make small grants to community projects.
Telscombe runs a flock of sheep on the Tye. This has been quite controversial because the Tye is popular with dog walkers and there have been issues about whether or not dogs have been worrying sheep.
Lewes puts on films at All Saints arts centre.
Lewes funds CCTV cameras.
Seaford owns its golf course.
Lewes owns the Pells open air pool, which is managed by a local group.
Seaford rents out beach huts and also has some for sale at £42k, which the Eye thinks is a bit steep given that they don’t even have the traditional double doors to let you enjoy the view without the wind. However in Lewes the beach huts are the responsibility of the football club, not the town council.
You might want to ask candidates if there are any of these things that the council should stop doing, or whether they think that there are other things that the council should start doing.