ANOTHER VIEW : Walsall on the front line

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The Independent Online
New councils are usually attacked for not carrying out their election promises. It seems that Walsall's Labour council is being criticised for doing precisely what it said it would do.

Part of the problem is that our critics are presenting their own version of Labour's policies. Unison accuses us of Thatcherite policies, while Walsall's Conservatives describe us as left-wing. Small wonder there is confusion. Against this background, our policies and the reasons for implementing them are ignored. Perhaps this is what our critics are after.

Tony Blair has stated that Labour's priority in local government is to ensure that resources go not to bureaucracy but to front-line services. He has advocated "a new form of politics where the people themselves are trusted to make decisions". These are key issues on which Labour went into the Walsall council elections in May. Our manifesto stated that existing council bureaucracy - traditional departments, headed by a director - will be redundant. Often departments take on a life of their own, standing like separate tower blocks with little intercommunication. The public gets confused, councillors express amazement, but departments retreat to saying, "But we've always done it this way."

Whole tracts of public services are now managed by remote, unelected and unaccountable quangos or have been privatised. We believe greater trust must be placed in Walsall people to share in decisions about services affecting their quality of life, through directly elected neighbourhood councils, within a framework which takes account of the law, the need for strategic decision-making and effective financial management. The council has no intention of abolishing itself or abdicating its responsibilities. Council-house tenants can make decisions about how their estates are managed. Our proposals extend these opportunities to all residents. Walsall already has a network ofneighbourhood offices, copied by virtually every council in the country. In future, neighbourhood offices will accommodate staff responding to a whole range of needs - way beyond housing matters.

Whenever change is suggested there will always be a reaction. Criticism has been fuelled by only one of Walsall's town hall unions: Unison. The key to its dispute is the demand for "a written guarantee that there will be no future compulsory redundancies as a result of their (Labour's) reorganisation plans". Councils attempting to give this kind of "jobs for life" guarantee have found it impossible. It would be irresponsible for Walsall council to pretend it can guarantee what it cannot guarantee.

We hope the wild accusations, personal insults and hysteria can now give way to sensible consideration of policies intended to forge a closer relationship with the public we claim to serve. To the beginning of a process that will strengthen public services in Walsall.

The writer is deputy leader of Walsall council.