Does a slump slow down the process of centralisation?

hazel_blears-webHere’s Chris Game over on the excellent OpenDemocracy site. Chris is at the Institute for Local Government Studies at Birmingham University, and is writing here about Hazel Blears’ backtracking on local government reorganisation in the face of the economic downturn.

As is increasingly recognised, UK local government already operates on a scale that would prompt most democratic countries to put inverted commas around ‘local’. Our 468 principal local authorities for the 60 million of us equate to an average population of 128,000, or one councillor for every 2,730 residents.

The 60 million French get over half a million councillors in their 36,700 communes alone – one for every 120 of them. The Swedes get one per 200, the Germans one per 420, the Spanish and Italians one per 600, and again these ratios are for only the most local tier in 2- or 3-tier local government systems.

Take away England’s current 34 shire counties – as the Government has already started to – and England’s most local tier of 354 district, borough and unitary councils has an average population of over 140,000. By comparison, the commune/municipality average in France is 1,600, in Spain 5,000, in Germany and Italy about 7,000, and even in recently restructured Denmark about 50,000.

As a comparison, it’s a sobering set of numbers, and grounds for a good deal of pessimism about local democracy in the UK. I do, however, worry when I see articles like that one when they don’t make much effort to identify what the causes of centralisation are – and how they should be addressed.

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Is the decline in local journalism damaging local democracy?

Here’s quite an old link I stumbled across while googling something else. It doesn’t do to only link to very new posts, does it?

“I don’t believe the intention is to destabilise democracy but that is the effect in many communities where the coverage of local politics has been downgraded by a loss of experienced staff with a real knowledge of the places where they live and work.

It is too easy to say the decline in local and regional coverage is an inevitable result of the move away from print to the web, social change, TV and radio. They are all true but the “bean counters,” as Dear described the press owners, have to take a lot of the blame. They are not investing in the quality of journalism we need either in print or online.

They are not the only ones to blame. I have said before that local government has been emasculated by centralising government, making local coverage of councils less relevant to the readers.”

MPs websites – politics on the rates?

As there are a couple of good posts in the mainstream political blogosphere touching upon the qualities that are needed to promote an effective representative democracy, today is a good day to start a blog on the subject. This post will focus on the most topical:

Both Puffbox and Spartakan are chewing over the fact that Labour MP Paul Flynn has had his parliamentary allowance docked for misuse of the weblog that he has established under that same allowance.

This scheme was set up in March 2007 with the express purpose of promoting a public understanding of Parliament. To my mind, it raises a number of questions that I will seek to answer here over the coming weeks and months. They are as follows:

  1. Do we over-fetishise political neutrality? Are the rules that preclude politicians from doing politics on the rates entirely sensible in this day-and-age? And do rules that are designed to stop this from happening actually pander to a highly anti-democratic and centralising agenda?
  2. Is this the old ‘Eunuch in a harem’ problem? Is there not something slightly distorted about going to people who are morbidly, obsessively and fanatically political people and saying “here is a budget that you can use to communicate with millions of people with an efficiency that you wouldn’t previously have dreamed of – as long as you don’t use it for political purposes?
  3. If you give an elected representative tools to communicate politically, are you necessarily giving them a political advantage? The public are increasingly turned off by political huckstering, yet politicians seem oddly keen to do it. Giving them the space to do it really effectively a bit like giving them a shorter rope and a longer drop?

I will return to these questions shortly – particularly the first one.