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

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Details of funding help for councils suffering

Copied from Local Gov Chronicle online
Minister considers further funding for worst hit
30 October, 2012 | By Ruth Keeling

MPs have appealed to ministers to extend transitional funding support for a handful of councils worse affected by the government’s cuts programme.

Ministers have promised to consider the plight of a dozen district councils facing cuts of up to 29.3% in their core funding next year as transitional funding set aside for the first two years of the spending review dries up.

Graham Jones (Lab), MP for Hyndburn and one of the areas affected, said 10 of the 12 districts were among the most deprived in England and all of the dozen faced a reduction of 22% or more “despite the chancellor’s suggestion in the Autumn statement of 2010 that no authority will suffer cuts greater than 8.8%”.

Describing the scale of the cuts as “cruel”, Mr Jones called on the government to include the transition funding in the funding baseline which will be set as local government moves from the existing funding formula to a system of partially retained business rates.

Local government minster Brandon Lewis (Con) said the grant was “only ever intended as a one-off, temporary funding stream. Councils will have realised that from the fact it was referred to as a transition grant”.

Mr Lewis also said the new funding system would “create direct links between rates collected and local authority income, thereby increasing the financial incentive for local authorities to drive economic growth”, although Mr Jones argued the councils concerned would need funding to invest in the “infrastructure, skills and apprenticeships” needed for local economic growth.

The minister said the department’s consultation on the business rate retention scheme had elicited a number of responses relating to the transition funding. “I am actively considering all the views that we have received from across the piece for the need for transitional relief funding for 2013-14” in the December settlement, he told MPs.

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More weasel words on Overseas Aid budget farce

How much longer do British taxpayers have to suffer cuts whilst their hard earned cash continues to flow into countries that are more than able to pay to look after their own citizens, but just don’t want to? They must be laughing their heads off every time they cash our cheque.

And the sternest statement our MPs can make on this scandal? ‘Tory MPs want Britain to use the meeting to call for bigger contributions from other countries’. WRONG! The British people want the British Government to stop lording it around on the world stage and cut these contributions without further delay.

British aid supports schemes in Iran and China
By Colin Freeman Sunday Telegraph 7 Oct 2012

FRESH concerns over Britain’s spending on foreign aid were raised last night as it was disclosed that the country is helping support projects in Iran and China. The Department for International Development (DfID) is a key supporter of the World Bank, set up to help develop poorer countries.
The bank, established after the Second World War, is funded by developed countries to provide capital to lend on interest-free or easy terms to poorer countries, and to use as collateral to raise further funds on the international money markets.
It also provides grants from cash given by donor countries, of which Britain is fifth largest, behind America, Japan, Germany and France. However, the level of aid given to the World Bank raised new worries last night over how aid funds are spent, and there is also concern over some of the bank’s loan schemes.
Inquiries by The Telegraph found a number of projects that bore only limited relevance to Britain’s development goals. They include:

• £50 million in loans for a road safety campaign to improve Iran’s appalling road accident rate. The country’s president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, holds a PhD in traffic management.

• A £30 million loan towards the cost of a Confucius “cultural heritage protection” project in China.

• £122,000 for a “radio reality format” project to encourage women in central India to use water more efficiently.

Last year DfID contributed £953.4 million to the bank. In stark contrast, China gave only £98 million in 2010, while Russia gave just £70 million. Additionally, Britain is still giving aid to “middle income” countries through its contributions, despite the Government’s recent pledge to restrict handouts to only the neediest nations.
In a major review of aid 18 months ago, ministers promised a “tighter focus” on 27 of the poorest nations. However, among those in receipt of World Bank grants are Moldova, Cambodia and Kosovo, which were on a list of 16 countries for which DfID stopped direct funding.
The three receive grants totalling £56 million from the World Bank’s International Development Association, a fund to which Britain paid £2.64 billion – 12 per cent of the total – in the last round of contributions in 2010. On that basis, roughly £7.6 million of the grants to Moldova, Cambodia and Kosovo came from the British taxpayer.
The money is part of the 0.7 per cent of national income that Britain spends on overseas aid, which critics say must either be reduced or more carefully monitored. The lack of control that Britain has over how its foreign aid budget is spent by international bodies was highlighted by The Telegraph last week, when it was revealed that British aid cash channelled through the European Union is being spent on projects such as tourism parks in Iceland and energy-efficient holiday complexes in Morocco.
This week, the World Bank will hold its annual meeting in Tokyo, when talks will start on the next round of handouts, due to be finalised next year. Tory MPs want Britain to use the meeting to call for bigger contributions from emerging economies, especially if they want a greater say in the bank’s affairs.
“As a layman, I would have imagined that the voting rights should follow the money,” said Philip Davies, the MP for Shipley. “By anybody’s standards, we appear to be overpaying relative to other countries, and it is more than we can afford in this time of austerity.”
A DfID spokesman said the Government had not made any decisions about its future contribution to the World Bank’s aid programmes. But he added: “We are committed to a faster programme towards poverty reduction worldwide – this includes pushing other countries to increase their contributions.”