South of the River – Where does the power lie?


Compass-SouthAs you may have gathered over the months, I have always been an advocate of people power. If you think something’s not right, get the community to do something about it or to put pressure on those with the power to change things.

This begs the question: who does have the power to change things? More often than not it’s not one person or even one agency.

I found myself sat in a meeting this week discussing Stank Hall Barn, the hidden historical gem of South Leeds (if you don’t know the background look here, here and here). This is a perfect illustration of the issues and a heartening vindication of community action.

The buildings and the site are owned by Leeds City Council. This seems straightforward, but the Council is huge and has many departments. The officers working most closely can’t get repairs or surveys carried out without asking another department. It might not be a priority for the other department so they may have to wait, or they can try and take the matter to more senior officers. Someone in the meeting described it as “wading through treacle”.

One of the issues making the treacle feel particularly thick and sticky these days is the shortage of funds. The Council is not in control of its funds, in the sense that the vast majority of its money comes directly from Government. As we all know, this is being cut – Leeds will have lost 45%, almost half, of its pre-Coalition funding within the next two years.

Even if the Council had the funds, they can’t act unilaterally. The buildings are “listed” and the site is a “scheduled monument”. They need permission to do things on site from English Heritage. So does the power lie with English Heritage? Well not really. They can certainly withhold consent, they can suggest plans and offer incentives (grants), but they can’t tell the Council what to do.

What about the politicians? Surely they have power? The ward councillors are very important and they have access to some pots of money, but the bulk of the Council’s budget is centralised so they must convince the other 96 councillors. It makes a difference that our councillors are in the party that’s in power within the Council, that certainly helps.

What about the MP? The clue’s in the name, the MP is a Member of Parliament, not a member of the Council. They can influence, they can ask questions, but they can’t tell the council what to do. However, once again the MP in question is in the same party as the councillors and the ruling group in charge of the Council, so that helps.

So what about the community? The Friends of Stank Hall Barn has only been in existence for about six months, we don’t even have a bank account yet and we are all very ordinary people. We are also extraordinary people, but I’ll come back to that. The group doesn’t look very powerful.

What was refreshing this week was that everyone told us the Friends group has made all the difference. The treacle is warming up and flowing a bit more freely. There’s still a shortage of cash and this will be a real obstacle, but all the different players want to see things happen, want to co-operate.

I’ve been in plenty of situations where the different players sit back and blame each other.

The difference is that there is now an “audience”. The Council officers, the politicians, the other agencies all still have the issues and relationships to negotiate, but now they are doing it in public rather than behind closed doors.

Jeremy Morton Aug13The community really is full of extraordinary people. Our little group of local residents contains historians, archaeologists and historical costumiers, but most importantly it contains people who are prepared do something, to ask questions and get the issues out in the open.

I’ll be back next week with more of my views from South of the River. If you’re on Twitter, you can follow me: @BeestonJeremy.