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Spend money locally, fix our water and tackle vacancy: Five priorities for local politicians

Local elections are mostly about local concerns but that does not mean they should only be about small thinking

Local elections are mostly about local concerns, which is understandable. But that doesn’t mean they should only be about small thinking. Here are my five big ideas candidates running in local elections across our country’s villages, towns, and cities should consider, and change the areas they’re running in for the better.

1. Community wealth-building

Keeping regional public spending within the local economy bolsters local prosperity, economic activity, and employment. Matthew Brown and Rhian E Jones’s book, Paint Your Town Red: How Preston Took Back Control and Your Town Can Too, outlines the Preston model. Amid austerity and deindustrialisation, Preston city council embarked upon an effort to generate and democratise local wealth, learning from concepts such as co-operative models, mutual aid, and community banks.

Fundamental to this was “shifting spending and investment from external suppliers to local producers and businesses” with “progressive procurement”. This meant adopting a whole-systems approach that wasn’t about chasing inward investment but directing public money back into the local economy.

In 2013, it was identified that of £750 million spent by six bodies on goods and services, £38 million was going to entities based in Preston, and £292 million was being spent in wider Lancashire. The council prioritised addressing a 61 per cent leak of public money to suppliers outside the area (national or global). These six “anchor institutions” were persuaded by the council to spend more of their procurement budgets locally. By 2017, that £38 million turned into £111 million of procurement budgets tendered to Preston-based businesses, and the £292 million grew to £486 million spent in Lancashire. Inevitable issues with scale and capacity were overcome through an approach described as “extreme common sense”. For example, the council’s £1.6 million budget for school meals was too large for local providers to realistically bid for. Instead of awarding a tender to a national or global provider, the council broke the budget into lots, awarded to farmers in the region.

2. Integration strategies

Integration does not have to be a laborious, overtly political or ideologically divisive process. It is about people, empathy, and connection. Local politicians can focus on positive initiatives, and resource and encourage what already works well; from community gardens to men’s sheds, sports clubs to after-school initiatives, coffee mornings to local art projects, community spaces and positive social activity. Ultimately, we all want everyone to have a fair crack of the whip, to be safe, happy, have shelter, friends, job opportunities as well as pleasant ways to spend one’s time, and feel a sense of community and hope.

Any councillor who leans into division within communities and frames the perceived or real scarcity of resources as the fault of “the other” instead of the system itself is not just populist, but disingenuous and devoid of ideas.

Local representatives need to quit the tired, clichéd rhetoric, and think instead about how they can bring people together instead of tearing them apart. If you don’t understand what increases happiness, decreases discord, and strengthens bonds within communities, then you have no business representing your community.

3. Tackle vacancy and dereliction

Long after you and I are gone, there will be a Green Party politician somewhere faintly bleating “live over the shop”. Make it happen. Resource teams in local authorities to audit existing and potential vacant “units” on streets. Recruit local builders to refurbish them as homes. Communicate the available funding effectively.

If every local authority successfully tackled street vacancy and dereliction, the housing crisis would ease, local economies and businesses would benefit, and more young people could see futures for themselves in the towns, villages, and cities they grow up in.

4. Water quality

Rivers, lakes, bays, taps. Water quality is a big issue across Ireland from swimming to drinking to fishing. In the 1980s, around 500 hundred Irish rivers were “pristine”. Today, that figure is a heartbreaking 20. Serious criminal penalties for pollution, and rigorous national action and education on water quality, all needs to be pursued. It is an absolute joke that when it rains a significant amount (something the climate emergency will see increase), Dublin Bay is not safe for swimming. Just last week, it emerged nearly 300,000 people across 15 counties were to be notified that their drinking water supplies have excessive levels of trihalomethanes. Water quality is a significant issue across the island. It’s time to stem the flow of dodgy water. We had a water charges movement. We need a water quality one.

5. Waste management

Disjointed waste management demonstrates the trend and outcome of local authorities divesting themselves of service provision. This is the result of poorly-conceived privatisation emanating from a value system that will inevitably have to be reversed in the name of sense and coherence.

Instead of multiple rubbish collection companies, wheelie bins, plastic sacks, and overly-specific bottle recycling machines (time-consuming and inconvenient to use), waste management needs to be simplified. Cities, towns, and villages need one-stop-shop community bins with underground storage accessed by residents through a paid system which is cheaper than the current labyrinthine network of collectors, and works for decades into the future.

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