An insider’s view on the decline in local government democracy

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Inside out: Dull politics repels potential candidates
25 June, 2014

‘Somebody else making the case for party politics being excluded from local government.’

I look round our council meetings and see old white men in eight out of 10 seats. I walk through the town centre and see a refreshing diversity – women, and people of all ages, religions and ethnic groups. The comparison is disturbing.

Our councillors are smashing people. They put in more than 25 hours a week on council business and are deeply committed to our community and council. But the internal monoculture has the same problems as acres of barley across a landscape – it is boring and dominates at the expense of everything else. It is not the barley’s fault; the system and the farmer are responsible.

It’s the same in local government. Councillors are not to blame. It’s the system of local government and the political parties that “farm” councillors. I don’t think changing the times of council meetings will encourage young women or men to become councillors. If enough councillors had jobs and kids, it would be no time before we changed meeting times and provided a crèche. We have to think wider.

How does somebody become a councillor? First, they have to be interested in the role. At the moment we are collapsing into bins, bogs and brushes. Devolve real power back to us, including powers over raising money. Open up debate, eg through open committee decision making. Then we might have more chance of people becoming sufficiently interested to want to become a councillor.

Second, the normal route for someone to become a councillor is through being active in a political party. Community activists who become councillors are the exception rather than the rule.

So parties have to change if we are to move away from the current norm. Parties need to look at how they reach out to different types of people, develop a welcoming and flexible culture and way of operating. They need to develop their members to be equipped to be councillors and review the way they are selected to stand as candidates.

I’ve spoken to young people about getting involved in politics and meeting times have not been mentioned ever. The main turn-offs are ignorance about what we do, formal politics is seen as inaccessible and “not for them”, but mostly because we are dull.

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At least it gives us old duffers something to do

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Time to rethink attitudes to councillors
19 June, 2014 | By Nick Golding

The case for localism is undermined if council chambers fail to reflect the diversity of the communities they represent. It is therefore worrying that the LGA councillor census shows councillors are becoming ever older while women and minority ethnic groups are still hugely under-represented.

Life as a councillor simply doesn’t have the appeal it once had. Local government has been starved of power and, above all, status. The holders of the role have been abused as snout-in-trough allowance chompers. And they have been demeaned by ministers, who put them on a par with volunteer scout leaders (who don’t control multi-million pound budgets or have responsibility for the welfare of vulnerable people).

Little wonder then that people are shunning local candidacy. Why try to make a difference when – shorn of money due to local budgets being cut more than central ones – your role amounts to little more than a figurehead for the decline of local public services? You hardly feel like Joseph Chamberlain.

Why work hard in your job all day and then return to work in the evening, especially when you’re not being paid? You’re now losing your ability to claim a local government pension; your travel expenses have been cut back. Councillors take little or no financial award from long hours, many of them antisocial, with onerous responsibilities. Ironically, they’re often criticised for personal claiming allowances by people with far better paid roles.

For these reasons, it is often only the retired who have the time and the financial platform to devote to local politics. The LGA National Census of Local Authority Councillors 2013 shows their average age exceeds 60 for the first time. The benefits experience brings to a council chamber should not be denigrated but to have a local body politic on average more than 20 years older than the general population means youth is under-represented. Councillors, remember, are responsible for children’s services, youth provision and sexual health facilities – a decent proportion of them need recent first-hand experience of these.

There are huge barriers for mothers contemplating becoming councillors. Few can afford not to work so that leaves them attempting to balance work, motherhood and local politics. Understandably, it’s the politics that often gives. One may speculate how more generous allowances could redress this balance and, for instance, pay dividends in better use of children’s services expenditure, which would no longer largely be determined by relatively elderly men.

It’s time to launch a fightback. Either councillors get proper allowances that reflect the long hours or local democracy remains the preserve of an aged elite. There is much that can be done by councils themselves – moving meetings to evenings to ensure those with jobs can attend, for instance. Many are bringing back the committee system in the hope of revitalising debates and potentially giving more councillors important roles. However, there is an onus on the whole of society to rethink its attitude to those performing civic duty – respect, not abuse, should be the norm.

I think most councillors would seek a simple acknowledgement for making the effort , not even respect, that’s probably too much to expect today’s, ‘I have my rights’ society.
If somebody was to ask me about becoming a councillor nowadays, I’m not sure what I would tell them were the benefits of doing so and I don’t mean to the councillor. Government funding cuts and more and more centralisation of power, hidden behind the facade of Localism, means that getting elected is more likely to become a exercise in frustration and disappointment, than a fulfilling experience in serving the community.

Embarrassed? They should be bloody furious!

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Members ’embarrassed’ by minister’s Europe approach
13 June, 2014 | By David Paine

Ministers have been criticised for dismissing a critical European peer review of local democracy in the UK.

After two fact-finding visits last year, the Council of Europe’s Congress of Local and Regional Authorities expressed concern about the financial resources of English local authorities, as well as their limited tax-raising powers and their dependence on government grants.

Its review also highlighted concerns about the limitations placed on local authorities in managing local affairs, due to interventions from central government.

Local government minister Baroness Stowell (Con) forcefully rejected the review’s recommendations in a speech made to the congress in March.

“Our greatest disagreement with the report is the underlying theme that local government, particularly in England, has insufficient funding, with a suggestion that there should be more local revenues,” she said.

“That is saying, and let’s not be shy about this, there should be more local taxes.”

At a meeting of the LGA’s executive board yesterday, outgoing chair Sir Merrick Cockell (Con) expressed regret at the response and added he thought ministers should have “accepted there are some areas that need improvement and they are of a mind to move in that direction”.

He added: “I was bitterly disappointed by that approach.”

John Warmisham (Lab), lead member for children’s services at Salford City Council and head of the UK delegation to the congress, said: “Just to say outright ‘no’ was for me, as a UK delegate and a councillor, embarrassing.”

He added: “I find it appalling to be honest.”

Referring to Baroness Stowell’s speech, Sue Murphy (Lab), Manchester City Council’s deputy leader, said: “It was one of the worst ministerial performances I have seen in my entire career in politics. Really, I thought it was insulting.”

The executive was told that the UK was, in general, in compliance with the obligations taken under the Charter of Local Self-Government, to which the UK government is a signatory, and that compared with the last evaluation in 1998 the situation had improved, especially in relation to lifting audit and inspection burdens on councils.

However, Andreas Kiefer, secretary general of the congress, told councillors at the LGA executive meeting: “We consider the UK a model of democracy so to find the reluctance to give local democracy the status that it has in other countries was surprising.”

LGA to go on the offensive – pity that Pickles is off!

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The LGA’s chair elect outlines his priorities for the association
David Sparks: End central government’s abuse of power
4 June, 2014 | By David Sparks

It will be with a great sense of responsibility that I take on the chairmanship of the LGA next month. Following four years of councils taking on the biggest cuts in living memory, we have just under a year to go until the general election. What happens in the following 12 months will be crucial to the future of local government, to the services we provide and to the ambitions we have for improving people’s lives.

I believe the LGA has a responsibility to every council to lead the debate, set the agenda and ensure that a clear and compelling case for devolution makes its way on to the pages of every major party’s manifesto. Last year’s Rewiring Public Services began a debate about how to tackle the funding gap. We now need to set out clear actions the next government must take in the form of a convincing offer that is too good to be refused.

Across the country there is a dire need for more new homes. There is a huge challenge to meet in ensuring there are enough places at good schools. Unemployment among young people remains stubbornly high. We in local government know that the answers to these key challenges can be found in a radical devolution of responsibilities and power to local areas.

By the end of this year, both Wales and Scotland – whatever the outcome of the referendum north of the border – will be on the road to receiving greater freedom from Whitehall. The devolution question for the rest of the UK must be answered. English local areas cannot be left behind with their hands tied.

The Council of Europe recently concluded that the ability of local authorities in England to discharge their responsibilities was often highly restricted by central government.

For too long governments on all sides of the political divide have been guilty of an abuse of power
I would go a step further. For too long now governments on all sides of the political divide have been guilty of an abuse of power. National politicians become gripped by the meddlesome urge to interfere in the local matters people elect local politicians to deal with. Westminster should have no business dictating to councils how often they can write to their residents, how to run waste collection services or how we raise and spend money to meet the needs of the people we serve.

As chair of the LGA I will be a staunch advocate for councils and the case for devolution. I will also be a determined champion for local government employees.

This army of unsung heroes have performed brilliantly through incredibly tough times. Faced with the biggest cuts in a generation, they have worked so hard at protecting vital services that people’s satisfaction with their councils has been steadily increasing. We as a sector need to recognise that.

Attacks from central government in the pages of the tabloid press take their toll on morale. We need to work harder to tell the public about the fantastic job the local government workforce is doing. We need to instigate a renaissance of careers in local government being valued and respected vocations that people are proud to do and the public truly appreciate.

One theme underpins all of this. The current model of governing the country is broken, expensive and no longer fit for the 21st century.

The success of my chairmanship of the LGA will be judged on the strength of the case we make to the public, this government, and whoever makes up the next one, that a radical devolution of power and responsibility to local areas is the only sensible answer to the big questions facing Britain today.

David Sparks (Lab), chair elect, LGA

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MPs and their Parties, don’t care about councillors

Another set of local elections out of the way and enough statistics to keep the pundits going until the General Election in May 2015. Who won, who lost and more importantly, who cares?

Obviously all those who actually gained, or lost a council seat, are very interested. Likewise, the remaining councillors, who may now find themselves in the controlling group, or now members of the opposition on their council.

However, beyond the councillors themselves and maybe to a lesser extent, the council officers who now have to deal with a new administration, neither the electorate and certainly not those in Westminster, will give a second thought to those affected.

Those fighting to either maintain control of Westminster, or wrestle control away from those in power, expend a lot of time talking about the results of local elections, when it suits them. Beyond the election period and it’s immediate aftermath, those of us in local government, are more likely to be viewed as an annoyance, rather than the backbone of public services and a conduit of how the public feels about government.

If you question this view, then why do all the main parties still insist on seeing the outcomes of local government elections, as no more than a protest vote and not a valid indication of what will happen at a general election?