By Chris Game
This article was first published in Public Management and Policy and is reproduced by permission of the Association. http://www.cipfa.org.uk/pmpa/index.cfm
Local government is not well understood by the general public, with many imagining their local council runs the police and hospitals. The author looks at the proposals devised to improve local government against this background of low understanding. He outlines the move towards empowering citizens by shifting powers towards local community groups and for councils to become democratic centres.
Here’s one of those self-diagnostic tests to assess whether you’re essentially an optimist or pessimist. If you’re a believer in—or, indeed, minister for—local government, what do you make of these findings from a recent Ipsos MORI poll of Londoners? Are you encouraged that as many as one in four respondents expressed interest in becoming a councillor? Or depressed at over half thinking they had to join a political party to stand, almost half imagining their local council runs the police and hospitals, and just 6% able to name their council’s leader?
It may be a toss-up for some, but not for the present minister, who will grab the one in four and treat the remainder as a personal crusade. For it is an under-publicised fact that the middle name of our diminutive Secretary for Communities and Local Government, Hazel Anne Blears, is itself a diminutive of Pollyanna. And, just as the sunny personality and irrepressible optimism of her fictional New England namesake transformed her aunt’s depressing Vermont town into a congenial neighbourhood, so Blears’ mission is similarly to metamorphose our modern-day communities by empowering us all, individually and collectively.
Empowerment was the fundamental theme of her July 2008 white paper, Communities in Control, which was more enterprisingly presented and more local government-friendly than many expected. The predictable headlines— ‘Voters to get iPod bribe to beat local poll apathy’ (The Times)—were maybe not totally inaccurate, but certainly misleading. There was much more to this white paper than councils being empowered to provide election turnout incentives by, for example, entering voters into a prize draw.
The main chapters address seven key issues from the perspective of individual citizens: how can I be an active citizen and volunteer? How can I find out information that I can understand and use? How do I have my say and influence decisions being made on my behalf? How do I hold to account people who exercise power in my locality? How do I get swift and fair redress when things go wrong? How do I stand for office and what support should I get? How can my friends, neighbours and I own and run local services ourselves?
As that last question confirms, the white paper contains its share of proposals for shifting powers towards local community groups and, as critics would claim, bypassing democratically accountable councils. The government wants more council assets (community centres, swimming pools, playgrounds, parks) transferred to local community ownership, and more co-ops and social enterprises running local services.
Changes in prospect
Blears, however, has the unusual experience of having been both a councillor and local government officer and the primacy given in the white paper to local authorities, councillors (‘true local heroes’), and to local politics as a positive and valuable activity is unmissable. Some will worry about her keenness for elected mayors or the requirement that councils respond to all petitions relating to local authority functions. But there should be a near-unanimous welcome for councils’ proposed new duty actively to promote democracy: ‘to present themselves as democratic centres, with a new culture which sees democratic politics as respected, recognised and valued’.
If these words and sentiments sound vaguely familiar to PMPA readers, it is not surprising. For they are a close paraphrasing of the very first and most basic recommendation of the Councillors Commission’s report that was discussed and summarized by its Chair, Dame Jane Roberts, at a PMPA lecture in February 2008. Roberts was keen to emphasise the coherence of her commission’s report and recommendations, and admitted disappointment at Blears’ immediate dismissal of some of the more radical proposals—much as several of the Lyons Report’s key finance recommendations had been instantly rejected by ministers.
Roberts had little idea at the time of the impact the undismissed parts of the report might have, the government’s official response to the commission appearing alongside the white paper in July. ‘Recommendations we will not be taking forward’ included all-out elections for all authorities, that would aid public understanding and turnout; multi-member wards and the single transferable vote, that could increase the selection of women and minority ethnic candidates; funding of parties linked to their meeting equalities targets in their selection processes; term limits for councillors; financial compensation for employers with councillor employees; pensions extended to all councillors.
Far more proposals, though, have been officially welcomed and several, in addition to the voting incentives and the duty to promote democracy, feature in the white paper: measures to raise awareness of councillors and their roles, extend the pool of potential councillors, and to improve support, training and accreditation; loss of office payments after electoral defeat.
None of this will change the world. For that, central government would have to let go of far more powers and controls that it is prepared even to contemplate. In the context of the past quarter of a century, however, local government might well raise two cheers.
Chris Game is Honorary Senior Lecturer in INLOGOV, University of Birmingham.