A Far seeing Article written in March 2006.
By Peter Etherton.
Most people in Rye take only a passing interest in the Rye Town Council. The mayor of this once powerful body gets his picture in the local paper most weeks but never for anything political. At one recent election there were thirteen candidates and twelve got in making me wonder what provisions were made for the thirteenth. He was clearly a good and honourable man who had much to offer the town. I would have co-opted him for something.
I know several Town Councillors personally. They often double up as something else political like District Councillors. And they also have party political labels like Labour, Liberal Democrat or Conservative. But I am told that the big national parties kick them out if they don’t adopt the party brand for local elections. So some are local patriots and some are not. And in practice this cuts across party political allegiances.
Protest marches to places like Bexhill Town Hall are on the rise. And the Rye Town Council…or at least individual Rye Town Councillors…get involved in these. Until recently the only successful protest march I remember was fifteen years ago when the whole town turned out to protest the proposed closure of Rye Memorial Hospital by the then Conservative Government in Whitehall. In the end Whitehall did an about turn.
What clinched it was Paul Blomfield persuading Paul McCartney to put up some serious money. If there were such a thing as the Freedom of this Ancient Towne…and who knows what lies buried in the town archives…then the two Pauls deserve it as McCartney’s millions allowed John Denham…the minister responsible…to go to his mandarins with England’s first Public Private Partnership (PPP) in the health sector.
Over the years Acts of Parliament have vested local councils with powers. Like all powers given to public bodies the details are in the legislation…and might require a local council to obtain the consent of another body. But no-body…personal, private or public..is above the law.
The powers vested in local councils are: Direct Powers that councils exercise themselves; Indirect Powers that they are permitted to pay others to exercise; and a third category Public Powers that in the long term are the inalienable rights of free people everywhere. But at present these Public Powers include only entertainments, planning & taxes. In the event of the collapse of outside provision, Public Powers will expand rapidly to include food, homes, public order, fields, woodlands, fisheries, rationing, health, schooling and the reopening of the Rye Mint. Civilsation is a very fragile thing. Rye should be prepared.
The eighteen direct powers are: Allotments, Baths, Churchyards, Commons, Footpaths, Bridleways, Lighting, Mortuaries, Open Spaces, Pleasure Grounds, Public Walks, Parking Places, Car Parks, Cycle Parks, Public Parks, Public Lavatories, Roadside Verges and Signs. And the twelve indirect powers are: Arts, Cemetaries, Clocks, Litter, Ponds, Post, Seats, Shelters, Swimming Pools, Telephones, Tourism and Village Greens.
Most of these powers have been usurped by Bexhill, Lewes, Whitehall, Brussels or Wall Street, farmed out to the local administrative arm of central bodies like the Environment Agency, or stolen by unelected and unaccountable bodies with dubious agendas like the Rye Partnership. All these bodies will be in desperate straits over the next few years. They will run out of public money, their services will deteriorate and their increasingly uncivil servants will devote themselves to preserving their jobs and protecting their pensions.
There is a tide in the affairs of men that taken at the flood leads on to glory. Rye should be prepared to seize her opportunities. One of the golden rules of power is that it is never given away. It has to be removed from those wielding it. In many parts of the world…and throughout English history…the transfer of power has been by force of arms. Where there is democracy and the rule of law armed struggle is avoidable…at least in principle.
Nevertheless if you want the power someone else has then you have to take it. They will not give it up.
Rye should not expect any other money than what it can raise by itself and from itself. From time to time a good case will be made for an organised boycott. Taxes may even be withheld for a while. But it won’t last. Individual protesters will get picked off one at a time. When given the choice of all hanging together or hanging separately, reprisals work and hanging wins. Ordinary people do not let their children hang.
At present apathy reigns over the affairs of the Rye Town Council. This will change. If it doesn’t then some alternative democratic assembly will emerge like the New England Town Meetings that served the needs of the new North American republic in its early days. How can Rye reclaim power? What should it do?
Rye should not try to stand alone. Rye must seek allies. Rye needs her own diplomats to make common cause with the more enlightened people in the adjoining parishes of Camber, East Guldeford, Playden, Rye Foreign, Udimore and Icklesham…the Gang of Seven. She should go further afield and find a way to welcome dissident groups from Iden, Peasmarsh, Beckley, Brede, Guestling, PettÊand Fairlight. Let’s call it the Rye Partnership.
Next choose one of the thirty powers…preferably one that is lying dormant…and start with that. The club’s first task will be to report back to its founding members on the state of the thirty powers. This State of the Rye Union report should be an annual event. Who exercises each of these powers? How should Rye reclaim these powers? How will the Gang of Seven and their friends pay for reclaimed Direct Powers? How should this new democratic Rye Partnership go about the job of franchising out its Indirect Powers?
Perhaps the Mayor & Mayoress of Rye should be floated on the stock market and a three year franchise awarded for the honour. The kings and queens of England were chosen this way. Pretenders to the English throne would tout their wares to the powerful guilds and livery companies of the City of London. Perhaps Rye should follow their example? Somebody somewhere may be willing to pay a million dollars for the privilege. Why do we believe that only Tony Blair can do patronage and sell honours? Some business plans might include The Great Wall of Rye with theme park revenues producing a healthy return. A ten-day Break in the Ancient Towne of Rye for just $1099. Must be better than sitting on the Queen Mary III in Southampton Docks.
However the Public Powers may present more immediate opportunities. A register of the Public Assets of Rye …the Rye Library for instance…should be established. A body similar perhaps to the old Jurats should be set up as the competent receiver for the common wealth of the People of Rye. Farm and fishing quotas should be sought after and retained by such a body for the People of Rye…and the milk and cod quotas franchised out to local farmers and fishermen. Local woodlands and farms should be snapped up when they come on the market. What the National Trust took 150 years to achieve Rye can do in 15…and better sooner rather than later.
Where is the money to come from? Legacies and covenants for starters…just like the National Trust. My nation is the circle of my friends. Let Rye be your nation. Do what the National Trust does…but do it locally. Another source of revenue for the public purse is the Free Two Pence provision. This allows local councils to spend money on anything that benefits local inhabitants provided it is not one of the Direct or Indirect Powers.
Creatively used this could provide the seed capital or matching funds to establish certain principles and show people the way ahead. By law the Free Two Pence should not exceed twopence in the pound on the rates.
Local Councils have rights over planning and development. These are fast being eroded but the right to be notified of planning application still exists. Exercise it. Local councils may also make comments and the planning authority are obliged to take these into account. Local councils also have the power to prosecute and defend any legal proceedings in the interests of the inhabitants and the power to take part in any public local enquiry. Used either discreetly behind the scenes or with flair and panache in the media spotlight these can become valuable tools for a local council that knows what it wants and is clear about how it plans to get there.
But it may be in arts and entertainments that the real opportunity lies. The Rye Festival is one of the ten best in the country. And Ryesingers is a jewel in the local crown. Local councils have the power to provide any form of public entertainment…including maintaining bands or orchestras and providing for dancing. They can provide halls for public meetings & functions, indoor sports or physical recreation and for the use of clubs or societies with recreational, social or athletic objectives. They can tackle obesity too by providing land for outdoor recreation.
Rye can learn a lot from the Cheeky Girls and the Petshop Boys. Why not seek their advice?