There are huge changes taking place in local government at the moment. In fairness, there have been huge changes taking place in local government for well over a quarter of a century.
In the name of making local democracy more efficient, more transparent, or more effective, Westminster politicians have meddled in the affairs of council’s big and small, always in the name of ‘supporting’ the strengthening of local authorities and their autonomy.
It is nonsense of course. Most of the changes that have been implemented have undermined local government, and simply resulted in increasing power to Whitehall mandarins.
From the abolition of metropolitan county councils such as Merseyside and Greater Manchester in the 80s – motivated by Margaret Thatcher’s hatred of the Ken Livingstone led Greater London Council – through to a shake-up of governance structures by New Labour that placed most powers and decision making in the hands of a few councillors on what we now call council ‘cabinet’s’, leaving the remainder of our elected representatives as glorified ‘scrutineers’, Parliamentary assistance to local authorities has been anything but helpful.
In more recent times, the government’s austerity programme has meant a huge hit to the resources of council’s, particularly in the north, whilst the cap that has been imposed on council tax increases that has been long imposed, has robbed local authorities of any fiscal ability to map out comprehensive, genuine long term plans and strategies.
Cynics may suggest that our wonderful civil service, who have to be admired for sustaining its own power and influence throughout a whole range of ‘modernisation’ initiatives over the years, have been undermining local government to justify their own positions for all eternity.
However, more reasonable observers may concede that though the methods employed to try and drag local government into the twenty first century are ineffective at best, at worst cruel, there is little doubt that a massive and radical review of local democracy is long overdue.
George Osborne addresses some of the issues through his Northern Powerhouse agenda, which devolves strategic powers to city region bodies and, eventually, to elected metro mayors.
However, for counties and areas that cannot boast a city ‘hub’, there seems to have been little thought given as to how they will contribute to this new world order.
In simple terms, I believe that we need fewer council’s and far fewer Councillors. The world has changed, and the days when we needed a council for every small town, and a councillor for every street has long gone.
As the old saying goes, chickens don’t vote for Christmas, and so the chances of local authorities addressing this issue themselves voluntarily appear remote.
However, Merseyside authority Knowsley is currently reducing its number of Members by a third, for which they should be applauded; Birmingham will go from 120 to 100 councillors in two years’ time. It seems inevitable that more of the smaller borough and district council’s in the country will be forced to merge just to survive at some point in the foreseeable future.
If this pragmatic approach gathers momentum, and local government leads in providing its own solutions to the challenges it faces, it may survive as we know it. If not, the notion of civil servants being dispatched from their London desks to look after us needy souls in the rest of what remains of the Empire, will be a more attractive proposition for a government that is more interested in cutting the deficit than increasing local democracy. Why do we need councillors, they will ask, particularly as so few of the electorate even bother to take part in local elections.
Council’s without councillors seems a bit of a barmy notion. But if local authorities bury their heads in the sand and ignore what is going on around them, including the very real attacks from Whitehall, then it is a very real prospect in the future.