Bring back local accountability

Another set of elections, another dismal turn-out, despite the new fangled ideas such as postal voting and other experiments. And the fact that the local elections coincided with the European ballot as well as, in London, the important mayoral contest.

But in truth, those who stayed away are behaving perfectly rationally. They have sensed that their vote does not matter much and that, on the key issue of money, councils are pretty impotent and unable to make significant decisions since most of their expenditure comes from central government.

That could, of course, be about to change. Last year, responding at last to long-expressed criticisms of the local government structure, the government set up the Balance of Funding Review to examine the problems caused by the fact that so little money spent by councils is raised locally. The figure is now around 25 per cent, which puts Britain near the bottom of the European league table compared with Sweden where local authorities raise 80 per cent of their spending, France at 65 per cent and Italy 45 per cent.

The committee has now been meeting for the past year and is due to report soon. And its impact could be great. The review raises fundamental questions about the nature of our political system. The government has already made major constitutional changes affecting the House of Lords and Scotland and Wales, and it is high time that it bit the bullet and addressed what is a clear democratic deficit in local government.

Although changing the balance of funding for local authorities sounds like a minor issue, it raises fundamental questions about the nature of our democracy. For example, if councils have to raise more of their resources themselves, they must then be given the power not to do so. That in turn means that standards can no longer be set nationally and opens the way for very different levels of provision according to the political complexion and proclivities of local elected officials.

But giving local authorities more powers would also open the way for civic initiative. In a fascinating new book, Building Jerusalem; the rise and fall of the Victorian City, Tristam Hunt charts how there was, in the latter half of the 19th century, a determined effort on the part of both central and local government to transform the ghastly squalid Victorian towns into places of civic pride through a process of urban renaissance. A whole plethora of service, mostly provided by local authorities such as sewage, parks, schools and wash houses were created which transformed the lives of the urban poor.

Although central government provided the legislation and some of the money, as Hunt puts it, ‘the first lesson of this transformation applies to central government. The history of the 19th century governance clearly shows that devolved power attracts local talent’. In other words, unless central government is prepare to relinquish some of its control over the provision of direct standards – which involves taking a risk that there will not be too many disasters and that when these occur, the mess has to be cleared up locally – then the current stereotype of council chambers being stuffed full of the old and the incompetent will remain true. As an example, Hunt cites the likes of Joseph Chamberlain in Birmingham and the Webbs in London as people of genuine calibre who were prepared to devote their energy to local authorities. Now, even the traditional route of council leaders using their power base as a stepping stone to Parliament is less frequently taken, suggesting that the calibre of councillors, with many honourable exceptions, is at an all time low.

Government has the opportunity to begin a municipal renaissance by devolving power through its rather prosaically named Balance of Funding. The current structure is a historical accident, a mishmash caused by such random events as the creation and abolition of the poll tax, the centralisation of the business rate to compensate for a rise in VAT and the failure to have frequent property revaluations together with the ridiculously regressive system of the council tax.

However, welcome as it would be, radical change would not necessarily bring back the voters to the polling booth. According to research carried out for the Review by Colin Rawlings and Michael Thrasher of Plymouth University, The relationship between funding and turnout at local elections ( ‘the balance of funding has very little, if any, independent impact on turnout levels once other variables such as the socio-economic character of the local authority and the authority’s political complexion are taken into account.

However, there is more at stake than just low turn out. Even if change does not attract the voters back immediately, the government should not shy away from changing a structure that clearly is not fit for purpose and which does nothing to stimulate local accountability. Eventually, if there is a real renaissance and an improvement in the calibre of local councillors, the voters will return.

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