Friday, 27 April 2012

Nottingham: Greater than the sum of its parts

Back in the 1980s and 90s my wife Susan worked job-share as Nottinghamshire County Council's Social Services Librarian and Information Officer. She never went a week without a telephone call from a Long Eaton resident seeking advice or assistance because the caller was convinced that they lived in Nottinghamshire. Susan would explain that they actually lived in Derbyshire, but more often than not back came the response "But I have a Nottingham postcode and telephone number and I work in Nottingham".


It is amazing how many people living outside Nottingham City Council's boundary feel very proprietorial about the city. Don't take my word for it. Just go through copies of the Nottingham Post for a week or two and I guarantee that you will read more letters about city services, facilities and events from non-residents living in the surrounding areas than you will from actual city residents.


As a local historian I have long argued that Nottingham should pay more attention to its 'Domesday' communities. Places now part of the Nottingham city council area, but with their own entries in William the Conquerer's great 'Domesday Book' of 1086. All of them were separate communities well into the 19th century. It is a historical fact that without the patronage and support of Lenton's Cluniac Priory, Nottingham the borough would probably have got less royal attention than it did. Without the coal mine owners, weavers, lacemakers and manufacturers in places like Ruddington, Beeston, Bulwell, Radford and Wollaton to name but a few, Nottingham's merchants and guilds would not have thrived or become as wealthy as some did.


There is a view that the tiny 19th century borough that was Nottingham expanded to take over the Lentons and Sneintons that surrounded it. I would argue that these communities very much wanted to be part of a greater Nottingham borough because they realised it would be to their ultimate advantage. They argued for the link roads that we now know as 'the boulevards' and ensured that we had open spaces for our leisure. I look at one, Lenton Recreation Ground, every day from my bedroom and living room windows and bless the negotiating skills of those 19th century Lentonians.


None of these places on their own amounted to as much as they did when they became one, when they joined forces at various times between 1877 and 1951, the last time Nottingham's boundary was extended in any significant way. Wollaton and Bilborough did not become part of the city until 1932, whereas Basford, Bulwell, Lenton, Radford and Sneinton joined the then borough in 1877. Clifton and the south part of Wilford joined in 1951. Since then? Nothing.


The last great local government re-organisation in 1974 has to be seen as a missed opportunity on a grand scale. Across the country, national and local politicians connived to protect their interests and one can only assume that some short-sighted Nottingham grandees conspired to keep Labour in and the Tories out, whilst in West Bridgford and Arnold there were almost certainly those who wanted to keep the Tories in and Labour out. The end result was a disaster in terms of good local governance.


In 1974 I was a Birmingham city councillor and Secretary of the city's Borough Labour Party, and found myself embroiled in all the arguments we had there. Birmingham already had a population of 900,000 but still had Sutton Coldfield grafted on and became a city of over one million people. We wanted Chelmsley Wood, then part of Meriden, because it was home to thousands of Brummies in homes built by Birmingham City Council (one of my favourite books, Estates: An Intimate History by Lynsey Hanley, tells you what happened and why). We lost the fight and the area became part of Solihull. The Tories were cock-a-hoop. With twelve Tory councillors from Sutton they thought they would win control. They didn't. They had to wait until 1976. I tell you this because I came to Nottingham in 1979 and became a county councillor in 1981 and saw immediately all the disadvantages of the city being part of the county council and the problems caused by having its boundary so tightly drawn. I began arguing for a unitary Greater Nottingham council then and have lost count of the number of times I have been told since to forget the idea.


And here we are, thirty years on and for the first time I feel as if something may be about to happen.  By chance, today's Nottingham Post devotes a page to the topic under the heading 'Mayor debate opens up the thorny issue of whether to widen city boundaries' and includes a map, which I reproduce below:


The first thing that strikes me is how tightly drawn this boundary would have been and begs the question, what would have happened to the what was left of Broxtowe, Gedling and Rushcliffe boroughs? The trouble with the 2007 proposal was that 'the deal' (albeit that it came to nothing) was done behind closed doors. In a letter to the Nottingham Post recently I said that: 'Perhaps what we need is a 'Greater Nottingham Governance Commission' to collect evidence and views on how we could create a system of local government better suited to the needs of the 21st century in the conurbation which is, in reality, the 'Nottingham' we all recognise and identify with, even though we may, as yet, be unwilling to accept the fact'.

Once the mayoral referendum is out of the way, I hope something like my proposed commission can be established from the grass roots up to collect evidence and ideas. I would envisage the first part of the process to be a survey asking residents in Nottingham and the surrounding boroughs how they define 'Nottingham' in geographical and social terms. This data would then be used to produce maps of Nottingham as seen by residents in each local authority area. I would allow six months for this. 

During the same period I would collate data for each area covering a wide range of topics, from the number of councillors and voters per councillor to community groups and service 'satisfaction' ratings. This would bring us to early-2013 by which time 2011 Census data should be available — something I see as crucial if we are to understand our area better. 

With all this information in the public domain, I would give individuals and organisations three months to formulate and publish their own proposals based on the evidence. At the end of this period we would allow a further three months to collate the proposals and for verification of any disputed data in the proposals.

So the second year of the Commission would begin with a series of sessions in public so that those making detailed proposals could speak to them and answer questions. This would bring us up to September 2013 at the earliest. Hopefully, some of the proposals will be able to find common ground, with the result that we may be left with a manageable number of proposals to further debate. The aim would be to put at least three options to voters in May 2014, plus a 'no change' option, with a view that the chosen option would come into effect on 1 April 2016 (assuming voters reject the 'no change' option).  Elections, if needed, could be held in May 2015 and would allow for a twelve month changeover period.

This is my scenario of what could be done and would fit in extremely well with the work of Nottingham North MP Graham Allen and his Parliamentary 'Political and Constitutional Reform Select Committee', which has proposed the codifying of the relationship between local and central government — a kind of 'Magna Carta', which includes the following:

Article 6 – Council Governmental Systems:  Local citizens, through their councils, have the autonomy to choose decision making processes which should be subject to a binding referendum. Processes must be reviewed every eight years. Any electoral system can be adopted by local citizens following consultation and a referendum.

This aim if realised could be tested by the people of Greater Nottingham making common cause for change.

I have deliberately stayed away from where an 'elected mayor' fits into all this because this idea is not part of my argument in favour of some kind of 'Greater Nottingham Governance Commission'. Anyone who has read letters by me published in The Guardian and Nottingham Post over the years, or heard me talk on the topic, will know that I believe in community empowerment and devolved budgets and control to councillors representing single member wards (once I would have argued for urban parish councils, but there are now legal mechanisms in place which actually give more powers to councillors should they want to exercise them).

My personal ideas for a possible 'Greater Nottingham Metropolitan City Area' have their origins in public transport connections across the area. My map below shows those places that have Monday–Saturday daytime links with Nottingham city centre every fifteen minutes or better. It's a simple test and a good one.



I have some ideas about how strategic services and facilities in this area could be organised whilst strengthening local communities at the same time, but this is a topic for the future. Right now I want to get people thinking about how they perceive Nottingham as a place in terms of its geography. How different would your map be to mine or that published in the Nottingham Post today?

International news today: From the anti-austerity firebrands of Greece's imminent elections to the corruption crusaders in Prague, from the Pirates of Berlin to the populists who scored well in France's presidential election, a new wave of anti-establishment parties are on the rise across Europe, posing a threat to the political elite.


National news today: Pupils are ditching chips, hamburgers and sweets for soup, sandwiches and fruit juice at lunchtime in the wake of the school food revolution begun by Jamie Oliver, a new study reveals. But the chef warned that this "huge progress" was at risk from the government's "short-sighted and dangerous" decision to exempt academies and free schools from the rules that have compelled other schools to improve the food they offer to students.

Nottingham news today: Westminster City Council is considering plans to move homeless housing benefit claimants to Nottingham and Derby, according to proposals by one of its private providers, Smart Housing Group (SHG).



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