Falling interest in local government is disturbing at a time when devolution of power is being contemplated. Central government has yet to come to terms with the abysmal intellectual standard of so many local councillors. This letter, from the Daily Telegraph of 12 June 2004, summarises what is wrong but offers no solution.

Fantasies of deluded councillors turn off the electorate

Falling rates of political participation at local government level are indeed cause for much concern. However, low voter turnout levels in this country are not a new phenomenon. In the post-war period, from 1945 to 1975, turnout levels averaged 45 per cent, at best only 10 percentage points higher than the current figure.

However, the cause of low turnout for local elections cannot be resolved by the punitive measure of making voting compulsory. The problem is more fundamental and, if opinion poll findings are anything to go by, relate to the debilitating culture of amateurism and complacency that affects those who work in local government and their political masters, local councillors.

Current research on the demographics of those who stand for local election suggests local councillors fall into two categories. The first is composed of retired persons with enough spare time and inclination to wish to serve their local community, while a second group is composed of middle-aged individuals whose motivations to uphold civic authority are as much about egotism as altruism.

All too often, the primary intention of those who seek local office is to attempt to mimic proceedings in the Palace of Westminster by playing out their petty political fantasies within the confines of the council chamber. Whether either group is sufficiently qualified to perform their roles as beacons of local civic duty is open to serious question.

This explains why, for more than a generation, governments of all persuasions have felt it necessary to restrict the autonomy of local authorities. What started with rate-capping and the removal of business rates setting power has continued with the Audit Commission spending millions of pounds each year undertaking Comprehensive Performance Assessments to monitor the everyday operations of councils.

Meanwhile, at present both the Government and the Opposition offer up meaningless buzz-words on local government empowerment such as "new localism".

Hamish Dibley
Corpus Christi College

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