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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
From: j b [mailto:email@example.com]
Sent: 27 February 2015 12:44
I thought I would bring to your attention a blatant disregard for recycling policy I came across the other day.
Any reasonable person knows it’s imperative to remove all screw tops from bottles to be recycled, however the perpetrator carried on regardless and also the person involved was ,oddly, happy to pose for a photo almost proud to be flying in the face of council policy.
I’ve attached a photo of said perpetrator ( who could possibly be a relation of tv weatherman Michael Fish) and trust you will investigate this matter with all means at your disposal.
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?
Local government continues to be criticised from various quarters, whilst at the same time battling the worst grant settlement in recent history. Media criticism is a given these days – there’s no news in good news when it comes to the press. The other, and more damaging criticism, comes from a man who is now clearly demonstrating a pathological hatred of the institution that gave him his start in politics, but appears to have cause him some form of psychological damage in the process, Eric Pickles.
Although given the job of minister for local government and therefore supposedly an advocate for it within central government, this man appears to be on a one-man crusade, but enthusiastically aided and abetted by Shapps, Clark and Neill at various stages, to undermine his area of responsibility to the point of extinction.
The hypocritical utterances of Pickles since taking office just keep flowing, with his latest referring to senior officers’ salaries. In keeping with his two-faced approach to the Localism agenda, he has now decreed that all councils will publish details of staff earning over £58,000 a year. Not a big deal in itself, why shouldn’t the local taxpayer know what those running their local councils are earning. However, at the same time, this ignores completely the government’s cave-in on a similar proposal for civil servants earning ‘fat cat salaries’ – his words not mine – and the subsequent pathetic requirements for them to publicise details of all those earning more than £150,000 a year. One rule for them and another for the rest of the pond life, as the lower ranks were sometimes called when I was in the military.
The attack from the media comes in the form of an investigation by the BBC Breakfast News show. It must have been extremely challenging making all those telephone calls to councils – worthy of a bonus, a party paid for from expenses and at least two self-congratulatory award ceremonies.
Apparently, councils are preying on the vulnerable by increasing the charges made for services such as meals on wheels, burials and cremations. No councillor gets elected on the promise of cutting services, or of screwing the taxpayer for as much money as possible and given the choice, most of us would prefer to reduce the cost of any service the public values. However, when confronted with a mad fat man in a hurry, whose only priority is to punish local government and grab media headlines whilst doing so, council’s are left with little choice.
Those with access to any of the local government range of publications and in particular the Local Government Chronicle (LCG), would have read numerous articles, written by all manner of so-called experts and informed commentators, some of them from within the government, encouraging councils to be more innovative in the way they raise revenue, with trading and charges being at the top of the list of must do’s. Trading takes time and money to set up, but increasing charges for services doesn’t. Desperate people do desperate things and so do desperate councils.
Much loved and well cared for over many generations, but now no longer needed because the custodians believe that they have the right to flog it off to pay some bills.
Maintaining the finest traditions of previous Tory Governments, most notably that of Margaret Thatcher, it now seems that our national woodlands and forests are now anybody’s for the taking.
Note I said custodians above, because that’s what the government is, the custodians on behalf of the nation, not the owners, with the right to dispose of them as they fancy. As with so many politicians past and present, they seem to see the cross in the box on a ballot paper as a mandate to do what the hell they like, when the hell they like.
Reading today’s newspapers, it seem 100 plus prominent people have written to government, voicing their outrage at this latest proposal to sell off the family silver, or more accurately, to sell off the land of our children and their childrens’ children.
As prominent as these 100 people might be, unless millions of ordinary folk tell this government exactly what they think of this proposal, I suspect their words will be just that –words.
Given that the probable figure to be raised will be no more £100m, yet again one is forced to ask the most obvious of questions – why damage the homeland, whilst continuing to squander taxpayers’ money on that piece of political vanity called the overseas aid budget?
Britain’s overseas aid budget is not just ring-fenced at £6 billion; it will grow — by 2013 it should reach £9 billion. The Tories agreed this whilst in opposition, supporting Labour’s target of increasing the aid budget to a level equal to 0.7 per cent of GDP.
It’s bad enough to squander our hard earned money on this badly managed and allegedly often plunder fund in times of plenty. To do it when our own people are suffering rocketing household bills, job losses and service cuts, as well as selling off assets such as our national forests and woodlands, in a bloody disgrace – shame on you My Cameron.