Democracy and politicians – never the twain shall meet?

As Whitehall politicians become more and more impatient with the drain local democracy places on the public purse, successive governments are finding ways to marginalise local politicians and insert those in their own image into that level of government, to do their bidding.

Labour attempted it with regional assemblies, with a sop to local democracy being made via the quality parish council initiative.  Regional government would emasculate every democratically elected body that currently existed outside of the Westminster bubble, with parish councils taking on parochial service delivery, thereby offering their local electorate a facade of local democratic power and control.

The current government has offered local government the ‘carrot’ of devolution.  The stick comes via the wresting away of democratic decision making and therefore wider than local spending powers, from directly elected local representatives, with the introduction of elected mayors.  These mayors would apparently see the bigger picture and establish a more direct line of ‘communication’ for their areas with central government.

Having failed to get these in place in a number of areas, they now appear to have come up with another cunning plan to do away with these pesky councillors.

Copied from The MJ Online Thursday 25 May 2017

Strengthening local democracy
By George Jones and John Stewart | 24 May 2017
Few have commented on a strange proposal in the Government’s Industrial Strategy green paper. It states: ‘We will work with local government to review how to bring more business expertise into local government, for example through the creation of a modern “alderman” type of role within local government’. There is no explanation of what this sentence means.

The use of the title alderman clearly repeats the use of the title mayor, which used to be restricted to the person indirectly chosen by the council to perform the politically-impartial role of chairing the council and carrying out ceremonial and social functions. But now it also refers to a person directly elected by the local electorate as the executive leader of the authority. The use of the word ‘mayor’ was intended to make this new role attractive to voters, but instead it confused the electorate as to what the role was to be. Now the term ‘alderman’ is perhaps seen as a way of making the new proposal (whatever it is) acceptable.

Whoever thought up this word may have misjudged how most people think. Aldermen have long been forgotten. They were abolished in the 1974 reorganisation of local government with little regret. They were seen as often frustrating the democratic will of the people, since they were appointed by the councillors, not the voters, and served for a six-year term.

Aldermen were usually senior councillors protected from defeat by the electorate. The position had been created in the 19th century as constituting a kind of House of Lords in local councils, acting as a constraint on the dangerous democratic processes of elected councillors.

The Government is intensifying its attack on local democracy. It is following its previous demotion of elected councillors into only the role of scrutiny of executive mayors by now proposing to diminish them further by inserting into councils aldermen, appointed not elected locally, with full voting rights.

This proposal signifies that in the culture of central government there is little interest in local representative democracy and no concern for its principles. It shows talk of local devolution is a sham.

The result of central government’s neglect of local representative democracy, or even of understanding its importance, has been that in a series of initiatives it has undermined elected local government.

Over the last 20 or more years, functions have been removed from elected authorities and placed under appointed bodies. The outstanding example is education, where schools are increasingly under the control of ‘chains’ which have emerged without any clear legislative basis.

The essence of local representative democracy is expressed in the direct election of councillors by citizens of the area they represent. But in combined authorities the mayor is the only member who is directly elected. The other voting members are appointed by their own councils.

The principle of direct election has been replaced by indirect election, usually of the leaders of the separate authorities. The principle of equal representation of areas is undermined by a restriction to a single individual for each authority, despite greatly varying populations.

The creation of directly-elected mayors undermines the position of councillors. The concentration of power in a single individual weakens local democracy. The council, as the expression of local representative democracy can alter policies and the budget only if there is a two-thirds majority, which is impossible in most local authorities.

The introduction of such ‘special majorities’ is a recent development in legislative bodies. It means the majority of a council can have no power even if a majority has voted for a proposal.

Local representative democracy is the principle on which our local government has long been based. It is the only effective way in which citizens can ensure accountability. Some, however, urge the merits of participatory democracy, and see it as opposed to representative democracy. We are not opponents of the techniques of participatory local democracy, but regard them as ways to strengthen representative democracy.

In a variety of ways local representative democracy is being eroded, leading to greater centralisation.

These developments have rightly led many, including The MJ, to argue for the start of a discussion on the future of local government, hoping it would help to reverse the process of centralisation, which has been a feature of the last 40 or so years under various governments.

Local representative democracy must be the basis on which effective and accountable local government can and must be built. There is no alternative if local government is to have the authority of responsibilities that can challenge the process of centralisation.

Centralisation cannot deliver effective government, since it thinks in terms of uniformities, whereas reality consists of diversity. Local government is the government of difference: it can respond to messy reality in ways that reflect the diversity of local circumstances.

Critical requirements to strengthen local representative democracy are for all concerned to recognise its importance and understand that political representation is an active role, involving interaction with the electorate, seeking out its views and ideas, and not merely waiting at surgeries for people’s complaints and specific problems to be aired, important though that is.

Indirect election and special majorities should be eradicated, as should the focus on single individuals as directly-elected mayors. Councils should be recognised as the supreme body locally and not regarded as requiring mechanisms to constrain its operations.

One basic constitutional change is needed to strengthen local representative democracy, ensuring it is truly representative, and that is to introduce proportional representation into local elections. The case for local government proportional representation is stronger than for Parliamentary elections, and it grows stronger in an increasingly multi-party society.

These ideas and more are set out in a book written in collaboration with Professor Steve Leach of De Montfort University, entitled Centralisation, Devolution and the Future of Local Government in England (Abingdon: Routledge, 2017).

John Stewart is emeritus professor of local government at the University of Birmingham. George Jones, emeritus professor of government at the London School of Economics, died last month, shortly after writing this article

A tribute to George Jones, originally published in The MJ, can be viewed here

Only local government can break the developer’s strangle hold on the housing market

Copied from Sunday Telegraph Sunday 16 April 2017

Economic Agenda
The key to opening up the housing market

By Liam Halligan

For decades across much of the UK far too few homes have been built. The average house now costs almost eight times annual earnings – an all-time record. In London and the South East, of course, this ratio is even higher.

Much of “generation rent” is simply unable to buy a home. For millions of youngsters, even those with professional qualifications and good jobs, property ownership is an ever more distant dream. Ten years ago, 64pc of 25 to 34-year-olds, the crucial family-forming age group, owned their own home. In 2015, it was 39pc.

Three fifths of an entire generation of young adults is locked out of the property market. Over half of first-time buyers get assistance from “the bank of Mum and Dad”, rising to two thirds in the South East. The housing market, once a source of social mobility, has become a source of growing resentment.
Part of the solution, as we so often hear from our politicians, is to “get Britain building again”. Yet the March PMI construction index, which monitors the UK’s leading building firms, last week pointed to a housebuilding slowdown. During the final three months of last year, 2pc fewer new homes were completed in England than the same period in 2015.

Over 2016 as a whole, while the construction of 5pc more homes was started than the year before, the number of new-builds actually completed was 1pc lower. Just 168,000 new-builds came to market across the UK as a whole in 2016 – way below the 250,000 needed annually to meet demand. The UK has built, on average, 100,000 too few homes a year since the 2008 financial crisis. For decades before that, housebuilding was also too low. The last time we did build a quarter of a million homes was back in 1980 – and 113,000 of those were council houses. With council-housebuilding now barely a few thousand each year, the UK’s housing needs are largely reliant on the private sector.

Although few homes are built, the UK’s three largest developers still report surging profits. Barratt saw a 40pc rise to £295m during the second half of 2016 – despite completing fewer homes. Taylor Wimpey made £733m last year, up 22pc. Persimmon’s full-year profits were £775m, 23pc higher.

These three developers now build a quarter of all new homes, with the eight largest accounting for over half. Small developers, suppliers of two thirds of new homes in the 1980s now build less than a quarter. It’s hard not to conclude the big housebuilders, who control so much of the land granted planning permission, are deliberately building slowly, to keep prices and profits up. Waiting to build creates a shortage and means their extensive land holdings also rise in value.

The “big developers” have “a stranglehold on supply”, said Communities Secretary Sajid Javid, at last October’s Conservative Party conference. They are “sitting on land banks”, while “delaying build-out”. The House of Lords economic affairs committee has also weighed in, saying the UK housebuilding industry has “all the characteristics of an oligopoly”. These two statements alone, in my view, mean our competition authorities should take a closer look. The UK’s housebuilding giants deny any go-slow, of course.

When the long-anticipated housing White Paper was published in February, some of us were disappointed at the lack of bold measures. While admitting “the UK’s housing market is broken”, there was no mention of a previous pledge to build a million new houses by the end of this Parliament – so, by 2020. That’s probably because, in the words of Paul Cheshire, a professor at the London School of Economics and probably the UK’s top housing academic, there is “more chance of me living on the moon”.

‘It’s hard not to conclude the big builders are deliberately building slowly, to keep prices and profits up’

Since the White Paper was published, though, having followed various behind-the-scenes struggles across Westminster and Whitehall, I’m pleased to report a little-noticed development that may soon help unlock UK housebuilding.

This column has previously called for the creation of powerful Housing Development Corporations (HDCs) – state-initiated bodies that acquire land, grant themselves planning permission, selling on the land in parcels to private developers. The HDCs then use the “planning gain” from the sharp rise in land value to fund new schools, hospitals, roads and so on. If new housing means local public services are significantly enhanced, there would be far fewer objections from existing residents. Variations of this model have been successfully used in countries from Germany and Holland to Singapore and South Korea.
Under existing “New Towns” legislation, national government can set up HDCs – which, crucially, can buy land at “existing use” value. Arable land, for instance, is purchased as arable land, bringing a healthy upside once residential planning is granted – guaranteeing ring-fenced cash for extra local infrastructure. That’s far better than current “Section 106” negotiations, under which powerful housebuilders hold most of the cards and often spend less on local amenities than councils expect.

What’s new and interesting is that an amendment has been made to new housing legislation allowing local government, with central government permission, to set up HDCs. Councils can buy land for a large development, partnering with the private sector if needs be – but, crucially, the planning gain receipts stay at the local level.

Such cash can then be used to build local amenities or even give residents a council tax rebate, which should make housebuilding much more popular.

This could massively empower local government, while finally sparking the housebuilding the UK so desperately needs. “If councils are considering a sizeable development,” says an insider at the Department of Communities and Local Government, “they should give us a call”.

Some insight into why our competitive edge will always be blunt

A couple of weeks ago now, I was in the company of a number of senior people from one of of our major national developers.  We were all at attending a conference and  they were representing the sponsor of that evening’s conference dinner.

it was fast approaching midnight in the bar and the mood was jocular and relaxed with plentry of banter between politicians and developers present, as one might expect.  The conversation turned to the skills shortage and in particular the shortage of bricklayers in their industry.  In another life one of the politicians had been a builder, so was quick to agree with the developers’ complaints about the national apprenticeship scheme used to train brickies.

I won’t bore you with the details of their complaint, but suffice to say, that anything involving the principles of good bricklaying, was totally pointless when it came to training bricklayers, in their collective opinions.  As far as those in the know were concerned, it should only take a couple of months at the most to ‘knock out’ a capable bricky.

On the face of it, many people would sympathise with any employer who objected to paying for staff to be trained to a depth they believed would never be used ‘in anger’ so to speak, which of course is why these developers were complaining about apprenticeships for bricklayers.

However, if the belief that the absolute minimum will do when it comes to skills training, is common across all industries that make or build things in this country, we will always lag behind the rest of the world when it comes to increasing national productivity and therefore competitiveness.

The Germans have a far greater respect for non-academic skills than there has ever been in this country.  A qualified engineer in Germany is given the title Herr Doctor to acknowledge their skill and training for example.  Of course I’m not suggesting that all our young Waynes, Jacks, Jills and Johns should now be trained to the level of Herr Doctor Bricky.

However, if you give a young person a good grounding in their chosen career, then they are more likely to aspire to go further than where they started when they first started work.  There are plenty of 30+, or even 40+ tradesmen and women out there doing exactly what they were doing when they were 20, but could now be doing so much more, had they had the right training at the start of their careers.

Teaching somebody more than just how to lay one brick after another in a straight line, until somebody tells you to stop and go back to the beginning and start again, should be welcomed as an investment in our country’s future, not resented as an annoying delay in building your bottom line at the end of the financial year.

Short-termism infects every area of government and private industry in this country – at least government has the partial excuse of the election cycle for this.  This continues to put us on the back foot when it comes to competing with the competition globally.

Seems I could become one of the last planning committee chairman under this government’s plans

Housing bill amendments branded ‘privatisation of planning’
5 JANUARY, 2016 BY DAVID PAINE

Copied from Local Government Chronicle online
Concerns have been raised that the government is privatising the planning service after it tabled a number of major last-minute changes to the Housing and Planning Bill.

Amendments put forward by the government this morning include plans to let developers choose who processes planning applications.

Also planned are changes to let local authorities set their own planning fees, a new section 106 dispute resolution process, and giving ministers the power to force councils to sell off land.

MPs are due to debate the bill, and 100 pages of proposed amendments, in the House of Commons this afternoon.

New clauses proposed by communities secretary Greg Clark will allow planning applications to be processed by an approved “designated person” if an applicant “so chooses”. While local authorities will still be responsible for the final decision on any planning application, regulations will in due course outline the circumstances under which an external recommendation by a “designated person” will be “binding” on a local authority.
Hugh Ellis, head of policy at the Town & Country Planning Association, called the amendments “extremely controversial”.

“It raises the prospect whereby the advice of a private consultant on a planning application could be more or less binding on a planning committee,” Mr Ellis told LGC. “You don’t have to be a rocket scientist to work out that what’s happening here is a fundamental assault on the public interest objectives of planning.”

A part of the amendments will force local planning authorities to share relevant information, such as the planning history of the land to which an application relates, with the designated person as well as the communities secretary.

Mr Ellis called the amendments “very worrying” and added: “People have talked about the privatisation of planning services and I think that’s probably what this is.”

He added: “I do wonder if people, particularly local councillors, who haven’t got their heads stuck in the Housing and Planning Bill will wake up to a particularly nasty shock over what this legislation has resulted in overall.”

Another government-proposed amendment will let councils locally set planning fees. The District Councils Network has repeatedly called for that, and in a briefing document on the latest amendments the Local Government Association voiced its support.

However, the proposed wording of the legislation gives the communities secretary the power to “prevent the charging of fees that he or she considers excessive”.

Plans to amend the Local Government, Planning and Land Act 1980 and give the communities secretary the power to direct councils, and other public authorities, to dispose of the land they hold were condemned by the LGA.

“Councils are best able to manage locally their assets to meet the needs of communities and are on track to bring forward significant levels of development on their land up to 2020,” it said. “Local authorities should retain the flexibility to manage their own assets.”

Another proposed new clause would give the communities secretary the power to impose “restrictions or conditions on the enforceability” of how many affordable homes, including ‘starter homes’, local authorities want built on a site.

The LGA said that should be for councils to “determine locally”.

The LGA also expressed concern over government plans to introduce a new dispute resolution procedure in relation to section 106 negotiations. The amendments will allow for an appointed individual to oversee disputes.

“Strengthening requirements for the upfront negotiation of S106 agreements would be a more effective means of avoiding delays than offering an alternative route for resolution,” the LGA said.

Another government minister playing mind games with local government

All junior pupils to be enrolled in a libraryEvery junior school student in the country will be enrolled in a local library, Nicky Morgan will pledge today. The Education Secretary said it is a “national mission” to improve literacy levels of young children. Officials in the education department hope that the drive could stop closures of libraries across the country. Local authorities often close libraries and justify their decision by saying that there are not enough members to warrant continued funding.

So, Nicky Morgan is going to make it a “national mission” is she?  Is she also going to make it a nationally funded mission, so that councils aren’t forced to cut other services just to satisfy yet another piece of government double speak?  I can answer that question, without even bothering to ask the minister.  There’ll be no financial support forthcoming, just more weasel words from ministers, when councils cry foul.

Gary Porter goes in with guns not blazing, but definitely with the safety off

Copied from Local Government Chronicle online

Give us powers to boost house-building skills – Porter30 June, 2015 | By Charlotte Santry

The government faces missing its pledge on affordable homes unless it devolves more powers to local authorities, the Local Government Association chairman is set to warn.
Gary Porter (Con) is today set to use his first keynote address in his new role to urge the government to transfer more funding and responsibilities for employment and skills services to local areas.
The government’s pledge to build 275,000 affordable homes by 2020 is at risk of falling foul of a growing skills shortage in the construction industry that is holding back housebuilding, he will say.
The LGA believes greater devolved powers would allow councils, schools, employers and colleges to work together to create more construction apprenticeships and ensure communities have the skills needed to build badly needed homes.
Cllr Porter will say: “The government has expressed a clear ambition to build more affordable homes and help more people own their own home. Local government has a central role to play to make this happen.”
For too long there has been a “mismatch of centrally set training and skills needed locally”, he will state, adding: “We’ve trained too many hairdressers and not enough bricklayers.”
Cllr Porter will also call for councils’ borrowing limits to be lifted, to allow for greater investment in housing.
In addition, he wants local authorities to have the freedom to set right-to-buy discounts and retain 100% of receipts locally without complex rules, to help them to quickly replace housing sold through the scheme.
Bringing health and social care together has shown that bringing local public services together provides better value services, he will say, pointing to the better care fund.
The proposals form part of an LGA report called A Shared Commitment: Local Government and the Spending Review launched today.

Gary Porter wants to be a unifying force in local government

Copied from Local Government Chronicle online 

LGA cannot afford to sit on the fence over distribution of funding

25 June, 2015 | By Sarah Calkin

The incoming chair of the Local Government Association has pledged to avoid sitting “on the fence”, despite having to represent the interests of members from across the political spectrum

Gary Porter (Con) told LGC he would find ways for the association to present a united front on difficult issues, such as how funding should be distributed across local government.

Under the current finance regime, councils in the most deprived areas have suffered some of the largest cuts compared with authorities in relatively wealth areas.  “If anything happens in this year it won’t be because we’ve got splinters,” he said. “We cannot afford to sit on the fence because then we’ll have the whole world designed against us.”

Asked whether the LGA would advocate a return to a means of funding distribution which was more based on need, Cllr Porter said it was not the only valid way of distributing funding.  The funding regime should, however, become “more sophisticated”.  “Needs based on poverty alone generally miss some parts of the country where there is real poverty masked by a general economic wellbeing,” he said.

He added that Labour councils should be confident he would represent their interests as he was not “a tribal politician”.  “In some of the things I do I’m probably more left wing than some of the Labour councils: I bought the dustbins back in-house, grounds maintenance back in-house, kept my council houses.”