It is important that local business should have a strong voice : 12 May 2006

The whole world has become computerised, but no-one seems to have thought through the impact that computers can have on society. All inventions can be used for good or evil, and computers are no different. On the one hand, computers offer us all greater opportunities to develop our personal and interpersonal knowledge, potential and skills both at work and at leisure. On the other hand, they provide a means of control undreamed of by any of the great autocrats and dictators of the past, and, in this respect, they can become the enemy of freedom and democracy. Faced with this dilemma, it should be obvious to politicians that it is in the public interest to promote the potential of these wonderful machines for personal and business development, and exercise restraint against the temptation to use them as an instrument for welding society into the straitjacket of a corporate state. Unfortunately, our Westminster mandarins have different ideas.

The process started years ago, for example, when the police decided to divert all telephone calls to local police stations to police call centres. This improved efficiency to the extent that it became unnecessary to have quite so many officers on duty at local police stations. Indeed the process has gone further, and, this week, West Yorkshire police were able to close 12 police stations to the public. This may seem an excellent way of saving money, but the sinister result is, in effect, to replace and control professionally trained policemen with a machine – the fully automated call centre.

That would not have been so bad, if it had led to more police time being spent on catching crooks. In fact, the reverse has happened, and the call centre system resulted in policemen arriving at the scenes of crime late, instead of catching criminals red handed – something that the public noticed long before the police started complaining about being overwhelmed by paper work. The price paid for this kind of computerisation was a reduced service to the public.

Unfortunately, our men at Whitehall will never learn. They now want to group County police forces into regional super police authorities. Their ministers say that this will enable the police to deal more effectively with organised crime. No doubt these super police forces will be able to buy bigger and better computer systems for this purpose. The question is whether these machines are going to end up replacing more qualified officers, so that “resources can be concentrated where they are most needed” – and the countryside can be left bereft of policemen.

Or is this just a matter of control? The bigger and less democratically accountable the authority, the easier it is for central government to control. Central control, which might have been impracticable in the past, might be achieved through greater computerisation. And, for the government and its servants, if faced with the opportunity of greater control, are they going to worry if the result is a more expensive service which is less locally accountable or less effective?

The same applies to local government. The bigger and fewer the authorities, the easier it is for Whitehall to control them. However, even national politicians are sensitive to public opinion, and not even New Labour wishes to be branded as anti-democratic. That is why so much money was spent on public consultation before the 1996 reorganisation. That is why there were referenda on Regional Government in 2004. That is also why councils represented in York a few weeks ago were told that the Government, whilst wanting to restructure local government, were not going to impose solutions which people don’t want.

So, instead of “imposing” solutions, the government has resorted to persuasion, propaganda and bribes. The kind of bribe I refer to is not the unlawful kind – it is offers such as the one made to Ryedale and Hambleton councils of 685,000 of public money to finance new computer systems to merge their revenues and benefits services under a new “partnership” – even though the costs of the merger will far exceed its financial benefit. The more services Councils merge in this way, the more brownie points they are awarded by the government’s inspectors. It is a case of death by a thousand cuts, until each Council will have so little left that they become unviable, and have to merge “voluntarily” into bigger units.

If that happens, small market towns like Malton, Norton and Pickering will find that the resources of the newly merged authority “will be concentrated where they are most needed”, which, in Ryedale’s case, would probably mean Scarborough, and they will lose out.

It is therefore important to take urgent measures now to strengthen our market towns, so that, if Ryedale disappears, their interests will be protected. That is why it is important that local business should have a strong voice and be able to influence events. As a ward member, I have found the Malton and Norton Initiative a very useful sounding board to help me determine what view to take on local issues which affect businesses in my ward – from the proposed pedestrianisation of Market Square to Car Park fees. Indeed, I am absolutely sure that, without MNI, there would have been no organised opposition to last year’s outrageous 25% increase in car park charges.

So I am disappointed that businesses voted against the BID. I feel the “No” vote is not in the long term interest of the town, and local businesses now need to think hard about how they are going to organise themselves to meet future challenges.

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