Neither local, nor government

Andrew Blick
12 July 2008

Andrew Blick (London, Democratic Audit): Is there a 'mental Berlin Wall' that separates unease about democratic issues such as 'executive dominance of Parliament, the unreformed House of Lords, the obsolete parliamentary election system, 42 days and the data-base state' from concern over the existence of 'local government that is neither "local" nor "government."'?

That at any rate is the view of Stuart Weir, Director of Democratic Audit, who led the discussion at Wednesday's CAOS (Combining All Our Strengths) seminar for civil society organisations.  Stuart described  domination by Whitehall managerialism, a complexity of structures and the financial and constitutional weakness of local government to ask, "Is democratic accountability at local level possible?  Is there space for genuine participation, and if so, is it confined to a very low level at which government is willing to tolerate ordinary people getting involved?' 

As it happens, the seminar coincided with a white paper on community engagement that illustrates how uneasy Whitehall is about any ideas that might break the managerial mould.

Confirming the view of apathy around local government, another participant noted that there had been no 'howls of protest' at the progressive removal of powers from town halls to Whitehall over the last four decades, while supposed transfers from the UK to Brussels are perpetually controversial. There were suggestions that local government could be linked to the broader democratic reform agenda through the introduction of local-level bills of rights or a right to participate.

During the course of discussion the existence of another 'Berlin wall' became apparent, one that divided those present at the meeting. On the one side there were a group I might ungenerously describe as the local government policy wonks; on the other the 'naïve' democrats.

The basis of their disagreement was as follows. Under the new arrangements for local government introduced in 2000, most councils are led by cabinets, with all other councillors, who once made decisions collectively, being relegated to the level of backbenchers, responsible for scrutinising policy but rarely for deciding it.

One participant in the seminar complained how, even if a particular decision taken by the cabinet (in this instance, the closing of libraries) was voted against by a majority of councillors at a council meeting, it could not be reversed as this sort of decision was delegated to the cabinet. The only way of reversing the decision was through the 'nuclear option' of a vote of no-confidence, which would lead to the establishment of a new cabinet with the same excessive authority.  In other words, local authority cabinets have an ability to dominate elected assemblies that even our notably powerful national-level executive lacks in relation to Parliament.

If MPs vote against a measure, be it a war, a treaty or a law, it would be impossible, either on practical political or formal legal grounds, for a government to proceed with it. Why should backbench councillors enjoy less powers than backbench Westminster MPs?

It was over this issue that the fissure between the wonks and the democrats opened. The wonks not only didn't think there was a problem, but they apparently couldn't see why anyone else could think there was one. Rather than a democratic deficit they saw an issue of political decision-making. If councillors felt strongly enough about something, then they would pass a vote of no-confidence.

I side with the democrats - who were appalled by this state of affairs - here. We were told at the seminar how councillors are now being advised that they need not turn up to any meeting other than the ones that elect the executive and set the rate. In times of low turnout and participation in local politics, what incentive is provided to either vote or run for a council if the body being elected is so weak? This is a fundamental issue, which alongside that of the dominace of edicts from Whitehall over local government, is more important than any of those fully addressed in the new white paper.

Had enough of ‘alternative facts’? openDemocracy is different Join the conversation: get our weekly email


We encourage anyone to comment, please consult the oD commenting guidelines if you have any questions.
Audio available Bookmark Check Language Close Comments Download Facebook Link Email Newsletter Newsletter Play Print Share Twitter Youtube Search Instagram WhatsApp yourData