Now is the time for all good men to come to the aid of the party: Fewer and fewer people want to be local council candidates says Simon Midgley

Click to follow
The Independent Online
SO STRONG is political apathy in the rural heartlands of West Oxfordshire that the Liberal Democrats have been unable to find any candidates to stand in three of the 16 district council wards being contested in this week's local government elections.

Indeed, in one ward, none of the three main political parties managed to find candidates.

In the Bartons ward the Conservatives discovered only at the last minute that the sitting independent was retiring and did not have time to find a candidate. Labour, which is fielding candidates in the other 15 wards, just left it too late. The Liberal Democrats, however, had plenty of time, but failed to find anybody willing to stand, there or in two other wards.

Christina Dorward, leader of the nine-strong Lib Dem group on West Oxfordshire District Council, said: 'We did look for a candidate but just could not find one. There is a disillusionment with the amount you can achieve. 'You can only effect minor changes. We have very little latitude. We have the semblance of a debate over a great deal of things but at the end of the day you have very little power.

'We have power over pavements and refuse collection but very little power over housing policy, for example. All the fun has gone out of it.'

Since the Conservative government came to power 15 years ago, local councils have been systematically stripped of many of their responsibilities. This has caused mounting frustration among councillors, and given rise to widespread concern that fewer able people are willing to stand, that the calibre of candidates is falling, the number of uncontested seats is increasing, and that the unpaid, time-consuming life of a councillor is so unattractive that young, career-minded people spurn it.

About half of Manchester City Council's 99 members are unemployed, retired, or part- time workers, and in Sheffield well over half of the city council's 89 members are not in full- time employment.

According to Mike Bower, Sheffield City Council's leader, the average calibre of election candidates is lower than it was 10 years ago.

So where are the captains of industry, the entrepreneurs and knights of yesteryear - the modern equivalents of those Victorian worthies who steered the once-great civic authorities? Are local councils dying, victims of local apathy and central government emasculation?

Since 1979, there have been 151 Acts of Parliament that have diminished the powers of local authorities, and pounds 24bn of annual expenditure - directly spent money and funds over which elected councillors previously had some influence - has been transferred from local authorities to unelected quangos.

Council expenditure has been capped and resources earmarked for specific purposes.

Education: local authorities have lost control of polytechnics (now unversities) further and higher education colleges, sixth-form colleges, training, and the careers service. They have less power over the appointment of school governors. Powers given to schools to manage their own affairs, opt out of the local education authority system and be grant-maintained have all made it harder for councils to plan education provision.

Housing: council-house sales and restrictions on new building programmes have reduced town halls to being managers of existing stock.

Compulsory competitive tendering has forced councils to put many services in the hands of private firms.

Transport: local authorities' role was cut by the 1985 Transport Act from providing an integrated public transport system to planning services and providing the rump which the market does not provide.

But local councillors still have significant powers they can use.

They are responsible for planning, building regulations, consumer protection, the environment, libraries, the arts, leisure services and highway maintenance and construction. With the advent of Care in the Community, social services responsibilities are burgeoning.

The fact remains however that morale in many town halls is low. In Sheffield, many experienced long-serving councillors are standing down, according to the city's Liberal Democrat leader, Peter Moore, because of the loss of powers.

The Labour leader, Mike Bower, said: 'People are not inspired to come into local government . . . they appear to be powerless.'

According to Mr Bower, disillusion set in during the mid-Eighties after the rate-capping battles with the Government. 'In the early Eighties it was seen as almost inevitable that anybody who was active in politics in Sheffield would find his or her way on to the council.'

Although good candidates are emerging again, there are still difficulties: 'We are still a long way from robust health. Merely on the mend. We are sitting out on deck with a blanket round our knees.'

Peter Hilton, leader of Manchester council's five- strong Conservative group, says that whereas 30 years ago the council would have included leaders of industry, commerce and the trade unions, the city is now represented by 'houseparents', pensioners, the unemployed and the unemployable.

'We find that there is over- representation of people with time on their hands. This is not good news.

'The City of Manchester plc is a pounds 1bn corporation. The better the quality of the stock administering that pounds 1bn operation, the more power and authority the Government is going to give them.'

A report just published by the Commission for Local Democracy, a privately funded research body, noted that a significant proportion of retiring councillors were in the 35- 44 age group and had served just one term of office. It reported that parties of all political persuasion say it is increasingly hard to find people willing to stand as councillors.

A 1993 Local Government Management Board study of councillor turnover found that although only 20 per cent of ex- councillors interviewed gave the state of town-hall political life as the primary reason for leaving office, nearly half named it as a subsidiary reason.

However, a new report to be published by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation and the Local Government Chronicle this week will show that there has been a significant increase in the number of female councillors and a rise in the number of graduates on councils throughout the country.

It finds no evidence that the supposed disillusion among councillors has led to any increase in the turnover rate - the proportion who have served for 10 years or more is about 40 per cent, almost the same as in 1985.

David Clark, director of the Commission for Local Democracy, argues that the calibre of local councillors is as high as ever. 'Manchester (council) used to be full of skilled engineers,' he says. 'You have still got them now, it's just that they are unemployed engineers. There are four of them.'

He adds:'Does somebody's calibre decline because they become unemployed? I suspect not.'

While councils lack the powers they had 15 years ago, he argues that they have as much if not more influence than ever. 'The city fathers in Victorian times built magnificent projects partly to service their own factories. But in Derbyshire now you could not do that because half of the people you would have to have on the council are not British citizens; they would be Japanese, they are the city fathers in the sense of owning the capital. Hearkening back to some sort of Victorian golden era is fine for romantic novelists but I am suprised when political commentators indulge in it.'