Public Service Management: Counties face death by voters' apathy: A low turnout in today's elections will further weaken the case for keeping England's 39 shire councils, says Andrew Evans

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TODAY'S county elections, the 31st since county councils were set up in 1889, are a popularity test not only for the political parties but for the future of English county government.

Politically, the opinion polls suggest that the Conservatives are heading for one of their worst county election defeats for decades, losing overall control of many of their traditional strongholds. But, whatever the political outcome, a low turnout in today's elections will further weaken the case for the retention of England's 39 county councils.

In Wales, where the Government is proposing the replacement of eight counties and 37 districts by 21 'unitary authorities' in April 1995, the battle is already as good as lost. But in England, where the independent Local Government Commission is reviewing the structure of local authorities on an area-by-area basis, there is still everything to play for.

The Commission has so far come up with only one, relatively uncontentious, recommendation - the creation of a unitary authority to replace the Isle of Wight's county, and two district, councils. On Monday it will announce its proposals for Durham and Cleveland counties and, a week later, its plans for Derbyshire.

Reports in the Local Government Chronicle and the Newcastle-based Sunday Sun suggest that Cleveland county, created in 1974, is to be carved up into its four constituent districts of Hartlepool, Langbaurgh, Middlesbrough and Stockton.

But a different solution is suggested for County Durham, with Darlington forming one unitary authority and the remaining seven districts being combined into one unitary county. In Derbyshire the commission is expected to recommend a unitary Derby City and the amalgamation of the other seven districts into one or two unitary authorities.

Among the statistics which the commission has been collecting in its review of local government structure are local election turnout figures for the last 10 years. The theory is that a high turnout shows that voters identify with, and give a mandate to, the authority being elected.

Turnout for council elections in Britain, as for European elections, is always far lower than for general elections. About three-quarters of the electorate votes in general elections, compared to 40 per cent for councils, and 33 per cent for European polls.

While some might see this as a reason for abolishing all local government and withdrawing from the European Community, the present government does not share this view.

That said, differences in local turnout are among the strongest arguments put by the shire districts in their campaign to dismantle the county councils. The evidence of the past decade clearly favours the districts. This is despite the fact that counties are responsible for a much higher proportion of local spending, with control of major services such as education, social services and police.

In Cleveland, for example, turnout in the county elections of 1985 and 1989 averaged 36.5 per cent, among the lowest in England. But in the district elections of 1983, 1987 and 1991, turnout in Cleveland averaged 42, 44.5, and 44 per cent respectively, In the Wear Valley district of County Durham (which is not, apparently, being considered for unitary status) turnout in the last three county elections was 35.5, 33, and 32 per cent. In the last three district polls it was 49, 43.5, and 50 per cent.

This pattern is repeated, though less markedly, in other districts of County Durham, with district turnout in 1987 topping 55 per cent in Durham City, where county turnout since 1973 has consistently been below 45 per cent.

Tom Gill, Durham City's Labour leader, says: 'People feel they have more contact with their district councillors on day-to-day issues, such as housing. The turnout must be a reflection of the relative importance they attach to the elections.'

There is, as yet, no comprehensive set of published national data on local election turnout after 1980. But such information as has been collated appears to confirm the Cleveland and Durham pattern.

Colin Ballings and Michael Thrasher, of the Local Government Chronicle Elections Centre at Plymouth University, put the English county turnout in 1985 and 1989 at 41 and 39.2 per cent respectively. For English and Welsh districts they put turnout at 47.8 per cent in 1987, 41.6 in 1988, 48.6 in 1990, and (for England only) at 48.1 in 1991. The one exception was last year, when turnout averaged only 37.8 per cent.

Elizabeth Anson, Tory chairman of the Association of District Councils, says districts benefit from smaller wards and a higher likelihood that electors will know their local councillor. 'If anybody is in trouble, they ring the district councillor,' says Lady Anson, of Surrey's Waverley district. 'You really have to stir people up and persuade them to go and vote in county elections.'

Surrey's county turnout, at 39.6 per cent in 1985 and 35.4 in 1989, was below the national average. Like Labour Durham, this may reflect the fact that the county has been controlled by the same party for decades.

Roger Chater, the ADC's deputy secretary, sees turnout as a reflection of the significance of both the election and the local authority itself to voters. But Robin Wendt, secretary of the Association of County Councils, replies: 'I don't think the difference is significant, and I certainly don't think it proves anything about the identification of voters with one type of authority rather than another.'

The psephologist Cohn Rallings says: 'We know it to be true that the districts do better than the counties, but actually proving it takes rather a long time and a lot of data.'

District turnout in 1990 and, to a lesser extent, in 1991 was boosted by controversy over the poll tax. But Dr Rallings, who has collected local election results back to 1973, does not see this as the explanation. 'I think it's more to do with the fact that the counties are generally that much further away from people's understanding and everyday lives,' he says. 'People identity more with their local population centre and their travel- to-work centre.'

Tim Haigh, of the Association of Liberal Democrat Councillors, adds that county elections are often fought 'on broad political platforms, like mini-general elections, which can depress the level of voter interest'.

Robert Waller, research director of the Harris polling organisation, says county turnout is lower 'because people think of the county as being more remote'. He expects another low poll today.

Other academics, while conceding the 'remoteness' argument, point to another factor affecting turnout - the imminence of a general election. Ivor Crewe, Professor of Government at Essex University, says turnout in May 1979, 1983 and 1987 - the main election years for shire districts - was affected by the parliamentary polls, while recent county elections have been mid-term.

John Curtice, senior politics lecturer at Strathclyde University, adds that recent county elections have not coincided with times of 'high electoral excitement'. The highest local turnout in recent years was in 1979, when the general and district elections were held on the same day.

Michael Steed, an honorary lecturer at Manchester University, says: 'There certainly is a pattern that local election rounds coming soon after general elections have a low turnout.' This, he says, explains last year's turnout of 37.8 per cent.

Robert Waller says low turnout usually harms the party that is behind in the polls, currently the Tories. 'I think these are going to be the worst county results for the Conservatives ever,' he says. Comparing the latest opinion polls with those for May 1989, Mr Waller expects the Tories to lose more than a third of the county seats they are defending, with about 200 going to the Liberal Democrats and at least 300 to Labour.

Another election watcher points out that a swing of 5 per cent against the Tories could leave them in overall control of only Surrey, West Sussex and Buckinghamshire county councils. Currently they control 18 out of 39 English counties, to Labour's eight and the Liberal Democrats' one.

Mr Waller predicts: 'I think people are going to give the Government a kick in the pants, and the Conservatives will end up controlling fewer counties than ever before.'

The political results of the county elections will be known tomorrow. The effect of today's turnout on the future of county government will take longer to emerge.

(Photograph omitted)