What has gone wrong with local government?

A personal view

Many years ago party politics did not play a dominant role in local government. Councillors were elected because they were well known members of the community who had something to offer - and they were prepared to work for the good of the community without substantial financial reward.

They were often successful people, comfortably well off and harbouring an altruistic desire to give something back to society. Many on both the 'right' and 'left' were driven by a desire to see injustice righted. These characters were not primarily 'party men' and most were intellectually independent of party bosses. They could not be told what to do and think. Several ex-councillors of East Devon District Council (EDDC) have told me of their decision to leave local government five or ten years ago because of the increasing domination of party politics with its inevitable concentration on petty power struggles. Nowadays, willingness to 'toe the party line' is a prime requirement and there are few true 'independents' left in local government.

These changes have been mirrored in central government. MPs are now for the most part 'lobby fodder', people selected for office on the basis that they will do as they are told (most of the time anyway). They can be relied upon to have few thoughts of their own.

Many MPs are still 'part time'. The MP for East Devon is a case in point - he was imported by the Party as a suitable specimen upon the retirement of a longstanding Member. Upon election he retained a lucrative job as a business manager in the auction house Sothebys (which has been in the news in the USA for price fixing, see website http://www.cnn.com/2000/STYLE/arts/10/05/sotherbys/ ) and spends some of his time on parliamentary business justifying his MPs salary together with an expenses package worth in total probably in excess of 100,000.

Many activists who signed up to New Labour have been as disappointed as were principled members of the Right as the last Conservative government choked on its own sleaze. Concern over 'part-time' MPs is not confined to the UK. A recent Press report stated that more then 175 Greek MPs had decided to quit their 'second jobs' after being given a deadline to choose between private activities and remaining as an MP. Distaste for politicians is now particularly acute amongst those on the 'left' of British politics who had worked so tirelessly to see an Labour government elected.

We were all in this together, this brave new world from which the Tories had been banished.   ...it is with resignation that we see Tony Blair trample over the structures of democratic accountability in his own party.....Burke's old dictum, that MPs are representatives, not delegates, belongs to the history books left on dusty shelves, shielded from the light of the automatons who serve in Blair's New Model Army.

From 'How Blair has betrayed us' by Sholto Byrnes, in The Spectator, 23 November 2002.

Abuse of expenses and the overwhelming impression of 'snouts in the trough' are other factors behind the cynicism that ordinary people now feel towards all ranks of politicians, even those who still seek to act with integrity. The 'expense account living' of European Parliament politicians is in itself worthy of a campaigning website (does one exist? please let me know).

Recent changes in local government have been imposed deliberately. The Deputy Prime Minister, John Prescott said years ago that 'the status quo for the future of local government was not an option'. Unfortunately the changes imposed since then have made matters worse. Expense allowances have been much increased  and an 'executive structure' developed under which key senior councillors now hold court within a 'ruling executive' and ordinary (junior) councillors and their views (if any) are paid even less attention than previously. This has in effect concentrated power in the hands of a few party bosses. The intention was to encourage a better average standard in local politicians.

In Councils that are in effect run as a one party state (because of local voting patterns) senior councillors now wield close to absolute power. They are assured of reelection no matter how dismal is their performance and however little they really exercise control over the bureaucrats. In the train of these all-powerful despots are an underclass of councillors, often of desperately low ability. Their only contribution to debate is usually to agree with their mentors and there is rarely any danger of them having anything original to say. They get paid irrespective of whether they turn up for meetings or have read any of the papers.

All of this suits career bureaucrats very well. Devoid of many (or any) councillors able or inclined seriously to question their programmes, they can build empires without fear of being called to account. Councillors are voted into power (in Sidmouth and East Devon anyway) by an electorate that according to local folklore would vote for a pig if it wore a blue pom-pom. We have seen several examples over the years of councillors who switched sides to join the Tory party just so they would be guaranteed a seat. This will change, but not until the generation of people who vote Tory "because it is the way I was brought up" or "because I have always voted Tory", dies off. I make these comments as someone who used to vote Conservative, and still might do so if there were any of their candidates worth voting for! Given that the average age of Conservative party members is apparently 67 (and about 80 in Sidmouth), we may not have long to wait before voting patterns change.

The low esteem in which voters hold politicians and especially Members of Parliament was highlighted by a poll taken in May 2002 by the Today programme on BBC Radio 4. People were asked to rate the professions which they most respected and least respected. Out of 92 categories of occupation, Members of Parliament came bottom. They even managed to beat Estate Agents (91/92) and Government Ministers (90/92). Local government officials fared a little better at 77/92. For an explanation of how the poll was conducted and the results calculated see http://www.bbc.co.uk/radio4/today/reports/features/professions_vote_results.shtml

Near the top of this poll were doctors and nurses, results which agreed with a narrower survey by MORI for the British Medical Association. This found that the historically high regard for these professions, and the trust people placed in them, was being maintained. See http://www.mori.com/polls/2001/bma2001.shtml.

Local councils rarely achieve a vote of confidence in this type of survey and a range of results are available at http://www.natcen.ac.uk, including discussion of why so many people now feel detached from the local political process. Two specific papers are worth noting, although both are a few years old. The first shows that only 10% of people aged 18 to 26 profess any real interest in politics with 1 in 3 teenagers having no interest whatever, compared to only 1 in 10 of adults.  (http://www.natcen.ac.uk/news/news_bsa_pr2001.htm). The second discusses general apathy and reasons for it - http://www.natcen.ac.uk/news/news_bsa_pr99.html#two.

Why bother with local government?

In a word - money.

The rationale for taking a more active interest in local government is both altruistic and financial. Many people spend hours or days a week doing voluntary work in their local communities that is worth perhaps a few tens or hundreds of pounds. The local Sidmouth Herald is forever carrying letters of congratulation in respect of raising trivial sums of money for some cause or another. The pattern is repeated across the country.

Yet the waste of money by local councils owing to sheer incompetence of officials and indifference of councillors can dwarf these amounts, as they can dwarf the total of fundraising by local charities. All of this is local money - collected via Council Tax.

Local people should spend far more time questioning the actions of their councils and councillors and less time baking cakes and holding jumble sales - valuable as these are for producing a little community spirit. The core of these arguments have been published several times in the local Sidmouth paper (see for example sept27herald.htm ) yet apathy still rules despite a widespread and well research feeling that local government does not concentrate on delivering the services that people actually want.

In a nutshell, there is far too much time spent preparing an ever increasing number of glossy reports containing pretty diagrams and fine sounding words (and buying ever more expensive computer systems on which to undertake this make-work) and too little spent sweeping the roads and making sure the drains work. The Adam Smith Institute undertook a survey recently that highlighted this very point - maybe some councillors should read it. Entitled The Wrong Package and published as a MORI survey in April 2001, a summary is available directly from http://www.mori.com/polls/2001/asi.shtml. The whole site can be viewed at http://www.adamsmith.org. A more wide-ranging study of local government (albeit undertaken by central government) is available at www.councilperformance.gov.uk . This site provides one of the first comprehensive pictures of performance in key areas including housing, education and financial management, as determined by the Audit Commission. 

In Devon, seered.co.uk is the latest of several attempts to stir a few local people into action. It is unlikely to succeed in Sidmouth because of the elderly population but please let me know if similar sites exist in other parts of the UK. I have long held the view that far more 'environmentalists' should try and get themselves elected rather than shunning the whole process of local government. Like it or not, decisions made in town halls and district council chambers can much influence the environmental direction taken by large numbers of 'ordinary' people. Indeed, with so much of the 'top-down' environmental legislation now being implemented via EU Directives (whatever you may think of some of them) and with Parliament becoming increasingly irrelevant, one scenario for the future is of 'top-down' environmental initiatives from Brussels being complemented by 'bottom-up' responses via local or regional government.

The next page comprises one of my many letters to the local press on the sham of accountability in local government. Have your Council Tax bill by your side as you read it! Or you can skip directly to a contemporary and detailed examination of peoples_network_computers.htm. These were purchased using 100 million of lottery money together with an unknown amount of taxpayers' money.

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