One sometimes hears people referring to Westminster as a “bubble”. I suppose that people who use this turn of phrase are intending to suggest that those of us working in Parliament are surrounded by a thin and somewhat opaque film which separates us from the world outside and leads us to spend an inordinate amount of time talking to each other.
Certainly, over the past few months, it has felt rather like that in Westminster as we have wrestled with the difficulties of Brexit. And, ironically enough, I am writing this particular column while sitting under a very bubble-like glass canopy which (when it doesn’t leak), keeps the rain off the meeting area of the relatively new bit of Parliament known as Portcullis House.
But the dispensations of divine providence have created a method for prising MPs out of the bubble at regular intervals – with beneficial effects on the sanity quotient of representatives at Westminster. This takes the form of a constituency-based system, in which each MP does actually have a particular relationship with a particular patch of the country – and each MP is therefore compelled to spend a fair proportion of his or her time concerned with the specific issues attached to that specific part of the country.
Amongst the many advantages of this system is the fact that it provides some serious connection between Members of Parliament and local governments.
During this last week, despite all the Brexit furore in Westminster, I was forcibly reminded of the importance of this link between MPs and the local governments of their particular patches.
I have mentioned in this column on various previous occasions the progressive moves that are now firmly underway to establish a new unitary council for rural Dorset, bringing together the County Council and all the relevant District councils into one entity. As I have also mentioned, the MPs representing the rural Dorset constituencies played a part in helping this unification to happen. And I am now very glad indeed that we have done so, because we are beginning to see the likely benefits of this re-organisation.
I read that the Shadow Unitary Council (which has been working to provide a smooth handover) has identified significant savings, yielding as much as £10 million per year of extra cash for frontline services and almost £20 million of additional capital to invest in Dorset’s infrastructure.
This is welcome news. Most welcome of all, is the news that this will enable the new Unitary Council to increase spending on children’s services by almost £6 million per year – which should, at long last, begin to cure the deficit that has arisen, and thereby liberate much needed additional funding for our hard-pressed schools. And it is also very good news that there will be another £1.5 million per year available for adult social services – which are going to need progressive increases in funding over coming years as the number of frail elderly people in Dorset inevitably rises.
Both the nation in general and Dorset in particular face challenges: but, in Dorset, we are taking sensible steps that will make it much easier for us to meet those challenges head on.