Time to Talk about the future of your council

Ruth Redfern.
Ruth Redfern.
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Your local council is under huge financial pressure. Budgets have been slashed, services are under strain and things are not going to get any easier.

That is the message Kirklees Council wants to get out as it launches a major campaign to get people talking about how council services should be run.

This year the council budget was cut by £22m, with predictions showing this will rise to £33m in 2014/15 and £39m in 2015/16.

In February, Coun Mehboob Khan warned that future years could be ‘apocalyptic’ unless expectations of what the council should provide are reviewed.

And that is exactly what the council is doing with the It’s Time To Talk campaign, which aims to start conversations among communities on the future role of the council and community groups in a time of cuts.

The mastermind of the campaign is Ruth Redfern, director of communities, transformation and change at Kirklees Council.

Local government is bearing the brunt of government cuts and the council’s budget has been slashed by 40 per cent, but Mrs Redfern insisted the ‘unique’ exercise is not about lowering people’s expectations, but changing them.

“Some people will be cynical at first and think this is a way of us trying to get people to do things so that we don’t have to pay for them,” she said. “But I think most people will see that if we are reducing our council year on year we have to do things differently.

“If somebody in your household lost their job, you would sit down as a family and talk about what you would change – what you would do less of and what you would do differently.”

The council has produced a ‘toolkit’ information pack with a variety of scenarios to kick-start a Kirklees-wide conversation.

Mrs Redfern said: “What I do not want this to be is a glorified suggestion box. We’ve all done it – you put a suggestion in and never hear anything again and you think ‘what was the point?’. This is a way of us communicating so that we know how to change over a period of months and years and then let people start to change their behaviour to help us.”

Mrs Redfern said the way people pulled together in the terrible snow earlier this year showed how communities and the council could work together: “At the moment we are in a position where your road is either gritted or not,” she said. “The council is good if it grits and bad if it doesn’t. But snow is our collective problem. How do we make sure no one dies, that old people have all they need?”

Mrs Redfern said the relationship between councils and citizens had to become more of an adult to adult relationship, rather than adult to child. “We need to be less patriarchal and people need to be more active,” she added.

“It’s almost like going back to the post Second World War period – both financially but also in terms of we’re all in this together.”

Mrs Redfern cited the ‘amazing’ work already done by faith groups and community centres involved in running schemes like food banks. But in this day and age, do people have the time to contribute more to their communities?

“I think it varies,” said Mrs Redfern. “But the question is are we using all the capacity out there of people who would like to or could do more in their communities? No we are not – not by any stretch of the imagination.

“We could become the first district that really uses all the talent, skills and capacity we’ve got out there, of the people who have the time, so it becomes part of Kirkless DNA to act and behave in that community way with our council.”

A statutory consultation on the council’s budget proposals will be held later this year, but for now Mrs Redfern wants to hear your ideas about how your local community can work with the council for a better society in tough times.

The first It’s Time To Talk event takes place at Birstall St Peter’s Church, 7pm-9pm on June 4. See http://www.kirkleestalk.org/ for more information.