Wednesday, 5 August 2015

"We weren't elected to make cuts!" The case for independent local government (and elected mayors)

My grandfather as Chairman of Penge UDC in its final year - 1964
A while ago I wrote asking what local councillors are for. The article was written in response to the idea of councillors being 'mini-mayors' in their wards and I concluded:

Much though I see merit in the mini-mayor idea, it is a reminder that the 2000 Local Government Act emasculated local councillors and created the situation where many ended up flapping around wondering what their role and purpose might be.

And I remain of the view that Blair and Prescott's wholesale changes to the governance of local authorities did untold damage to the idea of local representation. It is also striking that, despite the more recent Localism Act allowing councils of any size to return to the old committee system, this has only happened where political circumstances made it something one or other of the two big parties could sign up to.

As a consequence of the 2000 Act (which introduced a system designed for a directly elected mayor but, in most cases, applied without such a beast), we have a governance system at local level that excludes all but a tiny minority of councillors. Moreover, the system places leaders of councils in a special position - in effect treated as de facto executive mayors. I've witnessed this problem - and it is a problem - in discussions and debates about the creation of new sub-regional structures to harbour decentralised powers and cash from central government.

Regardless of the political balance or make-up of local authorities, it is leaders that central government wishes to deal with, leaders that sit on decision-making panels, and leaders that define the position of the particular local authority. What we have is indistinguishable - except in its lack of democratic mandate, transparency and accountability - from a directly elected mayor.

At the same time as the granting of special position to leaders, councils have been faced with the necessity of reducing their spending. This has led to much hand-wringing while the prosaic job of getting savings made without doing too much damage to front line services was undertaken - largely successfully. it is this process of reducing local spending that often gets dubbed austerity. And has resulted in a further round of worries about the role of local councillors - along the lines of "we weren't elected to make cuts!"

Despite this, it is clear that austerity has led to a further undermining of the influence of most Councillors, who now find themselves open to range of practical and more wide-ranging challenges. There are now fewer Councillors- financial pressure is leading to a ‘Councillor cull’ as Councils are merged, if not statutorily, then for all practical purposes via sharing services. They have much less financial discretion, leaving doubts about whether even statutory services can be maintained. 95% of Councils in England are now sharing a total of 383 shared service arrangements, leading to a dilution of Councillor influence. ‘Backbench’ Councillors not involved in the strategic decision making find themselves increasingly in the dark re. the details of contractual arrangements which directly impact on their wards and which may be in place for 25 years.

Once again this suggests that the role and purpose of the local councillor is worthy of review. If you take the 'community leader' model of councillor where people are elected to champion a given place (and to act as a de facto gatekeeper to the local bureaucracy) then there's a good case for having a lot more councillors. There's quite a contrast between me representing 13,500 electors in Bingley Rural and the fortunate councillor for Tamarside in Torridge District with only 1300 or so voters. The problem is that, on this ratio, Bradford would have 300 councillors which is perhaps a few too many!

As you all know, I'm not a big fan of councillors as community leaders - the sort of view that Clive Betts MP, chairman of the local government select committee, holds:

Councillors are spending less time in council chambers and more time out and about in their communities. In future, they will increasingly need to be on the frontline, working with constituents and external organisations such as GPs, schools, police, local businesses and voluntary organisations to ensure their communities make the most of all the opportunities available to them.

This is the councillor as an agent of the state rather than as a representative of the people - turning our role around from decision-making to being part of implementing decisions made by others. This negation of the councillor's representative role is, in truth, the central failing of the system created under the 2000 Act. That Act sought to deny - in most circumstances - councillors their historic role of being the representatives of a given group of electors, charged with voting of their behalf. Today, your local councillor - unless you happen to live in the leader of a council's ward - no longer has that role when it comes to most decisions that affect where you live.

Understandably, leaders (and those who aspire to that role) make common cause with the councillors who like the community leadership role to resist reforms to the system that might allow for councillors to take on that historic representative role again. These leaders will point to places and times when the councillor does have a say - on the setting of the council tax, on planning decisions, on area committees. But they never mention the restraints on those decisions - the 'Section 151 Officers Report', the 'National Planning Policy Framework', or the council's own Constitution.

None of these things are the consequence of austerity (defined in this case as cuts to local council budgets) it's just that the need to reduce spending has led to difficult decisions being made. And for many local councillors the sudden realisation that they have precious little say over any of those decisions affecting their wards.

For all its flaws and failings, local government is almost always better managed and more effective than centrally-directed government. This is what Tim Worstall called Bjorn's Beer Effect:

You’re in a society of 10,000 people. You know the guy who raises the local tax money and allocates that local tax money. You also know where he has a beer on a Friday night. More importantly Bjorn knows that everyone knows he collects and spends the money: and also where he has a beer on a Friday. That money is going to be rather better spent than if it travels off possibly 3,000 miles into some faceless bureaucracy.

The point (and we in England need to recognise this) is that Bjorn, like his counterparts in France and Germany, is a directly-elected mayor. If UK local government is to realise the sort of autonomy and fiscal control that places eleswhere enjoy, it has to start by acknowledging its present governance is opaque, undemocratic and unaccountable. And it is the governance at fault not the quality of councillor or the complexity of the decisions that are being made. It's certainly nothing to do with austerity.

For a hundred years or so the UK - well, England really - had a local government system that worked pretty well. It had limited powers (although this being England it could always do things so long as they weren't expressly forbidden) but exercised those powers using the funds it raised locally. As a result things like water supplies, sewers, houses, museums, art galleries, parks and swimming pools were built and places - even the smallest of places - developed their own identity and sense of value.

All this changed over the years from the 1960s to today's position where local councils are lost, struggling to know whether they are a community-focused urban or rural district or a grand and powerful city region authority demanding of attention (and loads of cash from central government). We behave like the former and demand powers like the latter, we reject elected mayors in favour of powerful leaders pretending the two are somehow different, and we get together and demand loudly that Westminster gives us more attention.

If we want to make the case for decentralising our over-centralised state - 'devolution' as it's popularly called - we have to start with making the case for a system of governance better than the one imposed on us (but gleefully snatched up) by the 2000 Local Government Act. Mayors are part of that better system but so are stronger parish councils and a thorough debate about the role of the local councillor. Above all - and we know this - the great years of local government were when local councils didn't have to get either permission or cash from Whitehall to do what they felt was right.


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