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.”

Could you ever get 66.6% of 4.5 million people to agree to anything?

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Lib Dems offer councils devolution route
10 March, 2014 | By Mark Smulian

The Liberals want to try to reintroduce regional government for some reason, despite it being a failed experiment under Labour. The danger for Lincolnshire, with a total population of less than 800,000, is that it could end up with regional government by default. The suggestion is that every local authority, would have to achieve a vote of two thirds in favour, but two thirds of what? Also, how would it work if you got a patchwork quilt of councils, where neighbouring authorities voted differently?

General elections average a turnout of over 70%. Local government elections are often lucky to get more than a 30% turnout. The elections for the Police and crime Commisioners, that took place in 2011, averaged a miserable turnout of 15%. Would you be happy to end up back in a regional government arrangement, based on a 15% turnout?

The Liberal Democrats would offer English councils a ‘devolution on demand’ mechanism, the party’s spring conference has decided.

Delegates meeting in York at the weekend voted for the idea, defeating a large minority who preferred a move to devolution throughout England based on the old regional development agency boundaries.

Under the Lib Dem plan, a council or councils comprising at least one million inhabitants would be able to apply for a range of devolved powers similar to those enjoyed by Wales.

Such a change would require a two-thirds majority vote by each local authority involved.

Supporters of the idea argued that this would allow those parts of England that wanted devolution – such Cornwall and major northern conurbations – to go ahead, while areas with little enthusiasm would not have devolution foisted on them.

But opponents argued that assembling the required two-thirds majorities would be difficult, and that even if they could, there would be an untidy patchwork of devolved areas potentially with, for example, a devolved county surrounding a city that was not without devolved status.

Policy working group chair Dinti Batstone said devolution on demand would work better than uniform regional government, citing voters’ rejection of this in the north-east referendum in 2004.

“England does not want a Prescott-style top-down devolution approach,” she said.

Calling for restoration of the old region as a tier of government, Leeds party member Mick Taylor said: “This resolution calls for devolution to a mishmash of collections of local authorities. Are we going to have the NHS devolved in some places but not others?”

He also complained that the paper did not confer automatic tax raising powers on the devolved areas.

The paper offered immediate devolution to Cornwall because of its cultural identity, and further powers to London building on its already semi-devolved status.

It also called for the use of the single transferable vote system for all English local elections, as used in Scotland.

As an interim measure the party would devolve more powers to city deal and growth deal areas.

Answering questions from party members at an earlier session, deputy prime minister Nick Clegg made clear his support for decentralising power further in England.

He said: “City deals have been a really important innovation. I want that approach extended to across the whole country to other cities, to urban and rural areas.”