Lancashire councillor bows out because ‘local politicians can no longer make a difference’

Ex-Mayor of Preston Coun Bhikhu Patel
Ex-Mayor of Preston Coun Bhikhu Patel
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“I feel disheartened because the community expects us to provide services, yet all we can say to them is ‘We’ll try.’”

That’s the view of Riversway councillor Bhikhu Patel, who has decided to step down from Preston Council.

The 60-year-old, who first joined the council in 1990, will not be standing for re-election in May.

He says the decision is partly for family reasons, but also because he feels councillors now have little influence.

Coun Patel, who lives in Broadgate, says: “I’m not able to deliver things in my local area because there’s no funding to do that, so I just feel a councillor’s role is diminished to a large extent.

“The local government support grant from the government has been cut to the bone and this means we’ve had to reduce the officers down and so we’re not able to provide the level of service that we used to.

“There were some activities we could do in our local areas depending on the need of the community, but those extra things we can no longer do.

“Now we are providing core services that really don’t need that level of decision-making.

“If the local authority is getting smaller we don’t need that many members of the council, and I didn’t feel that I was contributing at a level where I could make any difference.”

Coun Patel, who served as a Labour councillor for a total of 18 years, says: “If we just discuss issues but we’re not able to implement anything then, really, there isn’t a role left.

“For example, when we had the area forum we used to have money that we could distribute to local voluntary groups to make a difference in their area.

“As a council, we used to give a lot of money to voluntary organisations to function and provide services, and voluntary organisations are struggling because there’s no support for them.

“There were a lot of things we could do that now we’re not able to do at all.

“One time, if your recycle bins went missing we used to be able to order one, we could do that.

“The council used to come and collect large bulky items free of charge, you used to be able to ring the council and get cleansing out to clean up an area that had been left a mess.

“Now they are not just able to come out easily because they don’t have resources.”

Coun Patel is also president of the Gujarat Hindu Society which he will continue in his retirement, as well as looking after two young grandchildren.

He had also worked as a racial equality officer for 25 years.

He says: “Obviously there is lots of work for people, but as a councillor I feel that I don’t want to just sit around a table talking, when it’s just talking.

“I can still do the 
same things without 
having to be on the council with the experience and knowledge I have.”

As his time comes to an end on the council, Coun Patel says the highlight was being Mayor of Preston from 2005 to 2006, which he said he enjoyed “tremendously.”

UCLan expert Dr David Stewart, a senior lecturer in political history, says autonomy of local governments has been reducing since the 1980s.

He says: “The backdrop to this is since the 1980s there has been almost a constant erosion of the powers of local authorities - that has not just happened in the last five years.

“The financial cuts have been severe in the last five years and Preston has been cut a lot, but the idea of the autonomy and the power goes all the way back to changes instigated in the Thatcher era.”

He says major changes included the sale of council houses and the “abortive attempt to introduce the poll tax.”

Dr Stewart added: “Under New Labour, although there’s an argument to say the money available to councils rose, it did so within very tight confines and that money, the central government grant, which councils could spend in their own way, actually continued to reduce.

“Local authorities do less than they used to and they have got less money to deliver it, but local government autonomy was already quite restricted by the 1990s and has carried on on that path.

“But the grant to Preston Council has been massively reduced since 2010.

“You can’t deny there’s been huge spending cuts to local authorities.”

However, Dr Stewart says the next parliament is likely to see “some movement of power back towards local authorities”.

He says: “There might be something in this for the next five years because it does seem that something is going to give.

“If they are looking at a combined authority (in Lancashire), that’s a prelude for more powers.

“It suggests there are moves afoot to try to challenge the lack of autonomy and it shouldn’t be assumed the powers won’t return.”

The Local 
Government Association declined to comment.