Local councillors fear their democratic role is being downgraded by the growing number of partnership policies introduced by central government, according to research published today by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation.It has been looking at the role of councillors since the proliferation of partnerships which mean that the public, private and voluntary sectors have to work together on regeneration, health and social care, early years education and other policy areas.
Researchers from the University of Hull carried out a national survey of local authorities in England and Wales and interviewed councillors, officials and partnership members from outside local government in three case study areas.
Dr. Mick Wilkinson, co-author of the study, says, ” Councillors clearly feel it is time for central government to let go of the reins and allow them the space to follow political agendas and to innovate to meet the particular needs of their communities.”
The researchers found that councillors accept the need for partnership working while those from the voluntary and private sectors praise the transparency of decision making and the commitment of council members to making the arrangements work.
Both executive and backbench councillors worry that too many powers have been ceded to external bodies. They feel the role of local authorities and local democracy had been downgraded. They are concerned at what they see as increasing central direction, planning requirements, targets and indicators as well as tight financial regimes.
Executive members point to the fact that they are making decisions involving millions of pounds in taxpayers’ money while sitting in partnership with people from other agencies earning far more but with fewer responsibilities.
Backbench councillors, who already feel marginalized by the move to ‘cabinet-style’ structures see their community leadership role threatened by some of the more grass roots partnerships. Councils, the researchers found, are struggling to incorporate the messages members bring them as a result of their activities in the community.
There was also criticism of what was branded “partnership for partnership’s sake” and the lack of freedom to deliver policies in other ways more suitable to the needs of particular communities.