Structural changes ignored?

I missed this at the time, but here’s an example of what happens when you spend a fortune on a commission and ask them to ignore the trees while describing the wood.

In Public Service magazine, Professor Michael Clarke offers an account of his work as chairman of a committee that looked at the city’s governance.

For some reason, the governance concerned – with low electoral turnout and a rise in political extremism – is surely effected by the role of local councillors, and the fact that a significant amount of responsibility has been removed from them?

But is this issue highlighted in the article? Stoke councillor Peter Kent Baguley says not – and does so rather well.

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Escape End

Time for one last look at the Conservative party’s local government green paper Shift Control. A quick canter through chapters four and five, and then some conclusions.

Chapter Four is about spending. It says a Conservative Government will:

  • give local people greater control over how central government funds are spent in their area;
  • phase out ring fencing, so that decisions about how councils spend their budgets are taken by councils and their
    citizens alone;

  • make it easier for local government to raise money for local projects on the bond market.

The first point, about greater local control, refers to the Conservative-sponsored Sustainable Communities Act. This Act, according to the Green Paper allows “local governments to identify money spent in their area by central government agencies and then (after consultation with local people) to recommend ways in which it could be spent better by redirecting it to local priorities.”

That description of the Act is correct, in the same way that Lord of the Rings can be summarised as “Go and pop that ring down over there, Frodo”. In practice, between local people and the fulfilment of their desires are (i) the council, who have to choose which ideas to put forward; (ii) the LGA, who have to pick councils’ best ideas to recommend to Government; and (iii) the Government, starring HM Treasury as Sauron.

Now, if the Conservatives are serious about giving the SCA some zip, those obstacles may just fall away, but (as with other protestations of localism from parties in opposition) I am sceptical. I just can’t see the Treasury (or any Minister controlling it) being happy to let local authorities change central budgets, except at the extreme margins. Want to stop benefits payments or cancel a hospital build so you can try a whizzy new idea? Well, maybe we’ll let you take £20k out of the leg ulcer budget.

Chapter Five contains proposals for abolishing regional government, which are so eye-wateringly technical that I’m not even going to repeat the details. In summary, every regional-level strategy and body will be done away with (except in London), and councils will be free to do what they will, as long as they are within national planning guidance. The Regional Development Agencies will either continue or be replaced by alliances of local authorities co-operating on economic issues, depending on local wishes.

I think there’s something to be said for this approach. The regional bodies do their best, but they are big bureaucracies, not democratic institutions. Fundamentally, if we are serious about local democracy, local government should be taking the decisions that need to be taken about housing numbers, development etc. on a sensible grown-up basis. At the moment, anti-development councils jump up and down protesting about centrally imposed plans, pleasing their lobbyists, while avoiding any difficult decisions on their responsibility for the national economy. If they’re trusted with the powers, I suspect that they would use them sensibly.

To wrap up, then, what do I think of the green paper? It’s certainly not a great transformative vision for local government. “Occasionally interesting tinkering” is probably the best that could be said for it.

Good things? Some reasonable thoughts on regions, particularly the idea of local councils creating workable economic sub-regions. That’s important in the areas round London, which are very poorly served by the current regional structure. Warm words on devolving powers and releasing control, for all my scepticism about whether they will ever manage to do so.

Disappointments? The biggest is that the paper makes the same fudge as the current Government about localism. Does localism mean handing things to councils, or does it mean handing things to local people, over the heads of their elected councillors? Who can tell? Localism is a good thing, the Conservatives are in favour of it, the end. It doesn’t say much for the analysis behind the green paper that the difference between the different sorts of localism is never brought out, or even acknowledged.

Why give people referendums on council tax rates, but councils greater power over the location of housing developments? Why should the people of the twelve biggest urban authorities be forced to vote on whether they want a mayor, when the councillors of the thirteenth-biggest can introduce one or abolish one merely by putting it in a manifesto that no-one reads?

I suspect the answer is “because it seemed like a great idea at the time”, but that’s not really good enough for the likely future Government. Labour has tied itself up in knots on localism, and I expected the Conservatives to be clarifying the situation, not jumping in and knotting away themselves.

The paper is also, given its promises of referendums, astonishingly thin on building better day-to-day interactions between residents and councils. I appreciate that the Conservatives can’t be seen to be forcing councils to do things, but why not have a webcasting fund? Twitter training? Something, at least, to show that the Conservatives understand that political engagement can be built up from the local level.

Home PgDn

Time for a look at Chapter three of the Conservative local government green paper, Shift Control.

This chapter is the section of the green paper that focuses on democracy, so there’s a lot to talk about. The chapter says that a Conservative Government would:

  • provide citizens in all our large cities with the opportunity to choose whether to have an elected mayor;
  • give people the power to instigate referendums on local issues;
  • make the police accountable to the people they serve through directly elected commissioners, crime maps and
    quarterly beat meetings;

  • put the power to judge the behaviour of councillors back in the hands of their citizens by abolishing the Standards
    Board, and repeal the rules that prevent councillors representing their constituents’ views on local issues;

  • permit local authorities to devolve unlimited funding to ward councillors; and
  • let local people choose the organisational structures of their local councils.

Directly elected police commissioners deserves a fuller treatment elsewhere, so I won’t discuss it here. I’d only say that the obvious problem is one of competing mandates. Standards Board issues are democratic, in the sense that elected politicians should not be subject to disbarment by unelected civil servants – leaving such issues to the judicial system is by far the better approach.

Devolution of some money to ward level – as a power not a duty – isn’t a bad idea in itself, but the green paper suggests that money will be parcelled out to councillors directly. Participatory budgeting may be relatively untried, but an opportunity to extend it has been missed here. Participatory budgeting also provides a check on process: if individual councillors have sole responsibility for spending, the possibility of ward-level slush funds can’t be ruled out.

Allowing referendums on council governance structures might be a good idea if people knew or cared what their council governance structure was. More likely to be used is the alternative proposal to allow changes based on manifesto commitments. One problem in the proposals is that any referendum would take place at the same time as local government elections. This hasn’t been thought through. If Blanktown Council holds a referendum on whether to create an elected mayor, it has to be before the election cycle or there could be a four-year wait until the proposal is implemented. Far better to have the referendum held on election day in the year before the change comes in.

It’s also not clear what would happen to those places where directly elected mayors already exist. Would a council elected on a manifesto of getting rid of them be able to do so? This is important because elected mayors are sometimes independents, and sometimes from a different party than that controlling the council. It would be unfortunate for democracy, to say the least, if an respected independent mayor could be chucked out by collusion between a local government old guard on the council.

Quite contrary to the anything-goes spirit of the above, another proposal is to force big cities to have referendums on elected mayors whether they want to or not. This is probably the weakest idea in the chapter. Caught – as the government are – between a desire for elected mayors and a reluctance to impose them, the Conservatives have come down in favour of a double fudge. Rather than letting councils be, or imposing mayors, they are going to force councils to hold a referendum (in which most if not all councillors will campaign for a no vote). Then, beyond that, they are proposing to do this on the basis of current authority boundaries. In the case of Manchester, Nottingham, Newcastle, at least, the boundaries are historic irrelevancies. Far better to follow the London model and have directly elected subregional leaders (call them mayors if you like) that cover strategic issues across a range of unitary authorities.

The idea of local referendums triggered by 5% of electors sounds great until the first local referendums for expelling immigrants, leaving the EU, or reintroducing hanging start coming in. There need to be several safeguards on this proposal – first, referendums should be restricted to local government issues (not just issues that affect the locality); second, there should be a participation threshold, of say 20%, for a result to be considered valid; third, the option to hold the referendum outside the normal electoral cycle should be removed: this means that referendum votes would get higher and more representative turnout.

Shift Delete

Local decision-making should be less constrained by central government, and also more accountable to local people. We will encourage democratic innovations in local government, including pilots of the idea of elected mayors with executive powers in cities.

David Cameron’s green paper Shift Control, published yesterday? No, the 1997 Labour manifesto, and if you want a good hearty laugh, I recommend going to read the rest of the chapter on localism.

I’ll be taking a look at Shift Control from a democratic perspective over the course of a few posts, since it is the fullest Conservative policy statement we are likely to get before the election manifesto, and they are probably going to be in power in eighteen months’ time.

Before getting into the detail, it’s worth starting with a realistic assessment of what is going to happen to localism in 2010. Parties that have power at local level and not at national level are fond of pledging their support for localism. In power, their enthusiasm disappears. Like proportional representation, giving away 20% of power sounds great when you have 0%, and dreadful when you have 100%.

Perhaps the Conservatives mean to be different – let’s hope they do. But even if their intentions are pure, once in office it would take a will of iron to resist media pressure to do something when the next local government crisis happens. No recent British politician has had that iron will.

The problem lies not with the duplicity of politicians, but with a calculation of self-interest. Letting local politicians take decisions brings no credit when things go well, but media opprobrium when things go badly. Baby P was a national scandal, but in theory the voters of Haringey are the only ones who can punish the politicians responsible. In practice, of course, scandals like that influence general election voting across the country.

Telling a politician that they should localise is like giving an employee a bonus of £1 if he succeeds, and executing him if he doesn’t. Risk-aversion is guaranteed.

In the next post, I’ll look at the green paper pledges on business growth.

Mayor culpa

Elected mayors. They’re a controversial topic in local government, with many councils and councillors staunchly opposed to them. Until recently, the creation of an elected mayor needed a public referendum – most of which have been lost following opposition by councillors. Now, a simple council decree can introduce one, but if councillors are opposed, that’s not likely to happen.

What’s the next step? Probably, imposition of elected mayors by Whitehall, ignoring councils’ shrieks of displeasure. This might take place under the current Labour government or – more likely – under a new Conservative one.

David Cameron, following Michael Heseltine, has already said that he would favour elected mayors in England’s forty largest cities. This might mean the forty largest urban authorities, which would suggest mayors in every authority larger than Solihull. More radically, it might mean the forty largest identifiable cities, lumping together some authorities in former metropolitan counties. If that is the case, then every authority larger than York (150,000 or so) might find itself in line. Continue reading

Distributed moral wisdom – mayors and political parties.

I find it almost impossible to take a blog seriously when its central claim is that any British government in the recent past of forseeable future is really lurching towards totalitarianism. It is with this proviso that I offer a semi-approving link to this post.

The elected police chief – like the elected Mayor – cannot seriously be seen as a democratic step forward, can it? If one were to apply the logic that places ‘distributed moral wisdom‘ at the heart of a functioning democracy, then it is very hard to make the case for elections that foreground single individuals.

Surely, it is very hard to make the case that one vote every four years can endorse one individual’s approach to almost everything in a particular sphere? Surely this is little better than holding a plebiscite on a policy issue that most people don’t understand? Continue reading