Looking at Lichfield City Council

Tony Thompson, Leader of Lichfield City Council addressed the Society at the open meeting on Tuesday 23rd October. Tony is a long-term supporter of the Civic Society, and a former member. In his current position this is no longer appropriate, but he maintains his interest in our activities. He structured his presentation into a brief history of Lichfield's governance and the current position relating to Local government. This was followed by a lively session of questions.

The Chad pilgrimage established Lichfield's status after 672 AD. By 1153 Bishop Clinton needing extra finance established pilgrim services. In 1153 the first Market Charter was issued followed by others for fairs and markets. These are still run by the City Council. In 1387 local government began with the Guild of St.Mary and John the Baptist in the original Guild Hall (parts of which still remain beneath the 1846 building). Formerly Magistrates Courts were held there. As a City and County in its own right from 1553, higher Courts were held until 1970, when Lichfield was reincorporated into Staffordshire. Thus, our Sheriffs administered justice until 1970. Only twelve towns retain the post of Sheriff and Lichfield is the only Parish Council with this privilege.

In 1974 local government was reorganised and the City Council was established in 1980. Tony Thompson was first elected to the City Council in 1983 and since 2003 has been its Leader. Currently the Council provides those services devolved to it in 1987. Financially the Guildhall is a `loss leader' despite rooms being let and having an excellent main hall, but this is balanced by the profitable market lettings.

The Mayor or Sheriff attends Church Services and processions. The Council has responsibility for some 76 acres of open space, four miles of footpaths, the Northern plantations, Minster Pool Walk, the Garden of Remembrance and allotments, which are in great demand. Another responsibility is for the provision and management of community halls at Curborough, Boley Park and Cruck House. The Johnson Birthplace is a `heavy responsibility', but successfully managed. Christmas lights are also a responsibility of the City Council, assisted by the Chamber of Trade and these have been upgraded recently.

An important and worthwhile function is the Council's role as consultee to the District Council on planning applications. The North Lichfield Initiative has improved facilities centred at Curborough, with many community events. The City Council also considers applications for and award Grants and annually help a number of local organisations. The Twinning associations are managed by the City Council. Tony referred to the Council' s finances and the division of the Council Tax that provides the smallest unit for the City, which he hopes gives value for money. Our Chairman introduced the question session, expressing his concerns regarding the power of Central Government and the unelected Regional Assembly, with the imposition of housing proposals and the `gagging' of Councillors prior to planning resolutions. These are also Tony Thompson's concerns, especially as the Council is not represented on the Regional body. He felt that the fast rate of housing growth in Lichfield to be detrimental, especially the increased density requirements, the use of gardens as brownfield sites and the loss of older properties, citing the contrasting examples of estate design between Boley Park of the 80's and Darwin Park, post millennium. He was particularly vehement on the lack of correlation between housing and employment and factory sites being replaced by housing rather than new employment facilities.

Peter Cousins queried the size of the Council. Tony Thompson said that it is the largest in the County with 28 Councillors serving 30,000 citizens. Parish Council's average 8,000 generally, with Weston Super Mare with a population of 70,000 being the largest.

Mary Lister queried the ability of Councillors to sit on three Councils simultaneously, which baffled and alienated the electorate. Tony agreed , and added that this manifested itself in a very small turnout at local elections.

Inevitably the contentious Darwin Hall design was raised by Peter Dodd. Although successful in maintaining community halls, this is an ongoing challenge, even to be built. The proposed design has been withdrawn and we shall await the revised outcome with interest.

Ivor Mitchell described the `attempted' City Centre pedestrianisation as a `stark failure', while other cities / towns had achieved this. The new paviors have already been tarnished with oil and chewing gum. Tony Crookes commented on the inconsistent parking policy (perhaps to be resolved in 2008). The paving contractor's performance in its apparent failure to complete on time was referred to by Tony Thompson who confirmed that there is a penalty clause written into the contract for late completion. The involvement of the three Councils constituted a strange setup, its objective to up grade the city centre appearance and to `look pedestrianised'. He confirmed that it was not satisfactory, although he liked the Market Place. Ivor Mitchell said the Councillor's response had deepened his depression caused by this `municipal failure'.

Finally the Chairman thanked Tony Thompson, emphasising that the Council and the Civic Society have much in common in their aspirations for Lichfield. Despite having fewer powers and resources than the other two Councils, their considerable responsibilities are carried out with integrity and dedication; although perhaps not always appreciated by the citizens of Lichfield

Lorna Bushell
October 2007