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Experts reflect on four years of Darwen Town Council
Four years ago, town hall chiefs in Blackburn approved the formation of a town council for Darwen. Reporter Dan Clough spoke to councillors past and present to learn how people felt Darwen Town Council had performed so far.
PEOPLE in Darwen are a very proud bunch.
So it comes as no surprise that the merging of the boroughs of Darwen and Blackburn left a nasty taste in some mouths.
And when serious suggestions of a new town council for Darwen arose in 2007, hopes of a return to independence from Blackburn were raised.
Blackburn with Darwen Council approved the creation of Darwen Town Council in December 2008 after a referendum in the town had voted in favour of it.
And the election results were announced the following June, with For Darwen Party councillors taking seven seats, the Liberal Democrats four and Labour and Conservatives one each.
In May this year, the second election took place, eliminating all For Darwen Party councillors and putting Labour in control with eight councillors to the Liberal Democrats’ five.
Of the councillors currently elected, 10 also sit on Blackburn with Darwen Borough Council.
Tony Melia, a councillor at the time who quit the Liberal Democrats to set up the For Darwen Party – whose key objective was to establish Darwen Town Council – said the aim was never to seek independence from Blackburn.
Mr Melia said: “It had been an idea of mine as far back as 1987.
“I think after 25 years of being ruled from Blackburn, the town was starting to lose its identity.
“I thought to move forward the town needed its own council and a lot of people jumped on the idea.
“But my big difficulty was that we couldn’t have an independent borough council.
“That was never my intention, although a lot said I wanted to bring social services and other borough services back to Darwen.
“But I knew from the beginning it would be too expensive and I didn’t see the point of it as it was going okay with Blackburn with Darwen Council.
“I wanted a town council that would run a number of events to get people into the town and bid for funding in the way a charitable organisation would.”
Mr Melia said he didn’t think the current council was doing as well as it could. He said: “It is a shame the councillors in there now don’t work hard enough.
“They don’t have ideas or the ‘get up and go’ to make it work how I envisaged it to work.
“The idea was that town councillors would not be borough councillors.
“There are a lot of borough councillors who are running committees and their agenda could help to save Blackburn with Darwen Council money.
“Another aspect is that the friends groups, such as the Friends of Sunnyhurst Wood, are being funded by the town council.
“We initially steered clear of jobs supposed to be done by Blackburn with Darwen Council.”
Marsh House town councillor Simon Huggill formerly served on Blackburn with Darwen Borough Council.
He was elected as a town councillor in May, one of three councillors who do not also sit on the borough council.
He said: “I don’t think the town council has woken up to its potential.
“It has a statutory role in planning, but we don’t discuss planning at our meetings.
“I get the sense that the emphasis is on supporting good causes and getting activities going in the town.
“That is a good start, but we need to move on and think what impact we could have.”
Coun Huggill, a Liberal Democrat, said one idea he had was to set up a trust that could hold land.
He said: “Working with the borough, we could hold land on a reversionary lease and take responsibility away from it.
“So if a piece of land came up, the borough could buy it but leave it to the trust to run it.
“The trust, which would be separate from the town council, could then put in bids for funding to improve facilities and things like that.
“And because it was on a reversionary lease, the borough could take it back if it needed to.”
Sunnyhurst councillor Dave Smith, who sits on both councils for the Labour Party, said the council was doing a good job for the town.
He said: “I was against it at the start as I thought it would be confusing as we already have a borough council and I was against having two mayors.
“But over the four years we have had a town council, we have seen massive cutbacks received by Blackburn with Darwen Council, which the town council has been able to help with.
“Things like Darwen Live wouldn’t have been able to continue if there wasn’t a town council.
“That is the biggest thing we do, after taking it over from the borough council, and I think the people in Darwen really appreciate that event.
“I think people in Darwen believe the town council represents good value for money.”