Politics: Prescott launches into sleaze in local government

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The Independent Online
The sleaze that can be generated by one-party domination in local government must be tackled, John Prescott, the Deputy Prime Minister, said yesterday. Anthony Bevins, Political Editor, reports on the Government's concerted counter-attack.

A Government paper on the revitalisation of local democracy is to be published by Mr Prescott, Secretary of State for Environment, Transport and the Regions, and Hilary Armstrong, the local government minister, on Monday.

But in a speech to the Labour local government conference in Scarborough last night, Mr Prescott said: "We must be honest that there are problems. There is too little participation by the electorate in local elections, and in local government between elections.

"In some cases, we are victims of our own successes. A huge one-party majority can lead to internal strife, complacency and, in a few cases, a failure of public standards. We must tackle these problems."

Monday's paper on local democracy - "radical stuff" - would be the first of three, with others to follow on value for money and Nolan-style reforms tackling standards of conduct in town halls.

"On Monday," Mr Prescott said, "we will invite comments on how we can increase public involvement in decision-making between elections; whether voting can be made easier for people, including voting at more convenient locations or times; and whether the composition of our councils can be made more representative, something we, as a party selecting candidates, must address."

He also raised the question of whether there should be paid local council "cabinets", saying they needed to look at "sharpening up the distinction between the executive and representative roles of local councillors".

Mr Prescott added his weight, too, to the initiative being undertaken with Gordon Brown, Chancellor of the Exchequer, and other ministers like David Blunkett, Secretary of State for Education and Employment, and Jack Straw, the Home Secretary, on rundown estates, outlined in yesterday's Independent.

He is expected next week to unveil plans for the 900-home Millennium Village at Greenwich, which will provide a model for improvements in urban living.

"We must deal with education, transport, crime prevention, jobs, housing and the whole range of issues which combine to bring to life attractive, vibrant communities," he told the Scarborough delegates.

"We cannot deal with problems in deprived areas by dealing with housing, education, crime, or jobs in isolation.

"Gordon Brown will be working with myself and other ministers to draw together programmes to turn round some of our most difficult housing areas. We are looking at... estates hit by a whole mixture of problems.

"This will be an imaginative attempt to tackle the root causes of poverty, rather than just tinkering with the symptoms... this [is a] New Deal for Whole Communities."

Tony Blair, who will address the conference tomorrow, with a night's break to get over his Washington jet-lag - is expected to return to the issue of sleaze and corruption in local government; leaving no doubt about his determination to crack down on dubious town hall practices that give the party a bad name.