Thursday, February 28, 2008


We All Have a Duty to Offer Local Leadership

I feel guilty about local government. There, I've said it. The thing is I have come to feel so angry and frustrated and impotent at so many things: litter, poor recycling, poor care of roads and public buildings, complete lack of response by the Town Hall to my complaints and calls for action. I campaign for labour council candidates but when asked to stand myself I demurred. I'm not sure if I am just avoiding the responsibility which I feel we all share in such matters, or wisely refusing to do something I think I won't be much good at. So I end up feeling vaguely guilty that there is something I should be doing which I am not.

So the article by Simon Jenkins yesterday made me feel even a little more guilty. He argues that local government has lost something-

A tier of social control has been lobotomised from British public life. There is nothing between the individual or family unit on one hand and the central state on the other.

-going on to quote De Toqueville:

"every man is a stranger to the destiny of others. He is beside his fellow citizens but does not see them ... while above them rises an immense and tutelary power, that of the state".

He contrasts UK with other countries, observing that in most other western countries, there are always elected officials to offer leadership when problems arise. And they will be known by their constituents. Civic leadership by elected mayors has led the renaissance of US cities, as it has also in Spain and Eastern Europe. In the UK local elections no longer impact on vital public services- long since having fled to other even more anonymous agencies- and the size of local authority units make it difficult anyway, for people to relate to this level of government:

In France there is an elected official for every 120 people, which is why French micro-democracy is alive and kicking. In Germany the ratio is 1:250; in Britain it is 1:2,600. In France the smallest unit of discretionary local government (raising some money and running some services) is the commune, with an average population of 1,500. In Germany that size is 5,000 people. In Britain the average district population is 120,000, and even that body can pass the blame for any service deficiency to central government.

Jenkins concludes that, as a result of local government being stripped of its functions and independent funding, we 'have come to regard democracy as we do 'weddings and funerals- a ritual to be endured as briefly as possible'. He dismisses Brown's attempts at 'conversations' as 'top-down paternalism'. He finishes with:

Democracy bites only when it votes, taxes and delivers. Only then do its participants have the legitimacy to enforce social responsibility and communal discipline.

The problem is, not enough people- like me and many thousands of others- who are concerned, educated and, to some degree at least, able- are prepared to get stuck in and do the job of representing their fellows- accepting the challenge of local leadership, if you will. That's why I feel guilty.

How many of the examples of effective local government quoted here are still dominated by the party system? Perhaps the real problem in UK local government has been the inability of genuinely independent candidates to break the tired stranglehold of moribund parties who do little more than make feeble attempts to interpret vague ideas from a centralised structure into local policies - irrespective of how they might actually fit. I suspect the way forward here is to hope that a campaign similar to that now snapping at the heels of MPs is reproduced in local authorities where the electorate will begin to wise-up that they are represented by a bunch of time-serving party hack crooks and managed by an idle, compliant and at time criminally corrupt officer class.

All of this presupposes that we have a coherent and appropriate structure of local government. I have close contacts with someone who worked for the Audit Commission on aspects of both recent local goverment re-organisations and professed herself amazed that LG was so compliant in the face of what the centre was attempting (and succeeded) to do. The Tory demolition job did the trick - there's little muscle left for any kind of fight in LG and the structure as it stands is laughable, particularly the two-tier system that allows (in places) a distant and largely unrepresentative County Council to make major and remote policy decisions for boroughs - the decision on Academies, for instance is one utterly criminal example of this that will effectively reduce British education to something approaching third-world standards - within our lifetime.

Times were when the solution was felt to be in voter campaigns and programmes to raise awareness - all expensive and utter failures. Best let local government decline to the point where the big question will be - why do we bother having it at all?

By the way, if you have any evidence of your local council CEO knobbing his secretary on the photocopier most nights then I'd be delighted to know. One has to start bringing these cunts down somewhere!
"In France there is an elected official for every 120 people, which is why French micro-democracy is alive and kicking" - Jenkins wrong again shock! French local democracy thrives only at the very local level - the d├ępartements and regions have their hands much more tightly tied by Paris even than our councils do by Whitehall.

But at the local commune level it works very well, that's one reason why most French towns and villages are so well kept.

Since learning about the French system from my travels (it's the only other country about which I have the slightest knowledge of governance) I've long argued for a renaissance of town and parish councils in the UK.

But it's never likely to happen and even if it did it would have little impact on big things like waste management, housing or transport. But we might have nicer geraniums and less litter in our high streets....
I agree with the general sentiment - but the point about the samllest unit of fund raisng government in the UK is not correct - the parish and town council tier exists below the district level. Admittedly some of these bodies are pretty awful with minimal involvement and in some cases are little more than the personal fiefdom of local busybodies/squire etc. but there are some good examples - and I am sure that the answer to the problem lies in looking at how the best practice can be spread much wider. BTW some of the French Mairies/communes are truly awful.
Tory boys etc
There are very few parish councils below district level; e.g. Stockport Metropolitan District has only one parish within its borders. And I'm not sure what you mean by 'town councils'?
Tewkesbury, for example, has a town council which has limited functions similar to those of a parish council. Confusingly the district council is also called Tewkesbury although it covers a much wider area of north Gloucestershire. The two often appear to be at war especially over traffic schemes...
There are currently 10,000 parish and town councils with about 70,000 councillors - and the Govt has just made it easier to create new ones see below. The real problem is getting people involved and making the local councils work effectively - but the structure is there if people want to use it.

Town councils have similar powers to parish councils - but tend to represent towns where there are common interests and dividing up on the basis of churches probably make little sense.
There is a lot of following rather than leading going on, and mirroring instead of fixed politics.
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