Lee Kuan Yew, President to Singapore, has died. He was not a democrat but he leaves behind a prosperous island, having started with very little.
His life made me think about the democracy we have in Felixstowe. Although we have a vote once every few years we really live in a relative dictatorship. The ruling party has total control. Over the years I’ve seen opposition Councillors publicly humiliated, and the public disregarded.
Many of our local politicians are merely ‘hand wavers’. Normally unheard or seen they only come to notice when required by their leaders to vote.
In part that is because we have Cabinet government. The cabal is reduced to a few individuals, and even then some of those do not know what they are doing. One Councillor having just been given a Cabinet post with responsibility for an area of government told me he’d no idea what the job entailed, he’d never been involved with public health.
We have a handful of Councillors, most of whom have been there for too much of their adult lives, who are in charge. That’s not really the full story because they are advised by senior Council staff who may have their own agendas.
The Town Clerk when I was a child was there for over two decades. He knew the town and its people intimately. Who knows what influence he exerted but hopefully (and so it seemed) he did his job, and did not have a political perspective.
Today we can’t be so sure. Senior staff move around. We had one who stayed a very short time before moving to another District. Asked why the only clear explanation he could give was that he was to earn another £3,000 a year. Any allegiance to place has been lost to career advancement.
In 1974 Suffolk Coastal District Council (SCDC) was created. Felixstowe’s own Council was downgraded to the status of parish council with control of allotments and the graveyard. It lost everything else to the new District Council.
The geography of SCDC allows for little influence on local decision making. It is separated from the rest of the District by the River Deben. To get to the District HQ means a long journey inland. The town produces over one-third of the District Council’s income but sees very little in return.
The biggest disadvantage comes from staffing. There’s just a small handful of SCDC staff that come from Felixstowe, and no SCDC services based in the town.
In 1974 the town owned property. The finest building in the town, at the top of Bent Hill was quickly sold. Since then we have seen all the remaining buildings sold or leased to outside concerns. Recently we have lost a fine art-deco former restaurant, next to the Town Hall, sold to a developer, we now wait to see what will happen. We do know that SCDC did little to maintain the place during its tenure, indeed used its dilapidated state as a reason for its disposal. At the southern end of the town SCDC owns 17.5 acres of coastal land. They handed this over to Bloor Homes who have built lots of town houses. So far SCDC don’t seem to have received a penny from the developer for land valued at £30 million.
Now the Spa Pavilion has been handed over. This is a strange decision. For many years local people have wanted to manage the theatre. Their submissions have always been ignored. Now we see it handed over to a company that was only created in February 2015 whose management has no theatre management experience. The new Artistic Director once had a bit part in the TV series, Hi Di Hi and nothing else of significance. Not sure that qualifies him to manage a theatre.
Especially when we hear that the new company’s business plan requires they sell 5,000 seats a week. An impossible task for a 900-seat theatre.
The real problem with the actions of this council is that they hide behind a veil of commercial secrecy. The people are never told what is happening, never involved in decision making, and are never allowed to see the contracts that are awarded.
Questions have been asked but always the Council has refused to give answers.
One of the great attributes of the dictatorship of Lee Kuan Yew was that he was close to the people. He involved them in decision-making. No chewing gum in the streets was a simple command that worked.
Felixstowe needs new leadership. It has stagnated over the years largely because the leaders of its controlling party have not wanted change. One has used her position to promote her social life, another has been at the back of a number of deals with developers that need careful examination. The rest have been ‘hand wavers’. The Opposition barely exists, those that do ask questions are often ignored.
Democracy or benign dictatorship? In Felixstowe we don’t have either.