Ashdown says 'out-of-touch' Westminster alienates voters: Disillusionment could lead to extremism, Liberal Democrat leader warns

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PEOPLE feel a sense of powerlessness and loss of control because Westminster has become completely out of touch, Paddy Ashdown, leader of the Liberal Democrats, said yesterday.

'There is a desperate sense of alienation from the whole political process. This is a cancer eating at the heart of our democracy. If it continues, the conditions are in place for the rise of extremist politics and extremist politicians.'

Mr Ashdown, speaking in Bournemouth at the annual conference of the Association of District Councils, said it was dangerous that the political system should be held in such disrespect at a time when the challenges were so great.

He went on: 'The last 14 years in Britain have seen the systematic destruction of local government freedom and autonomy. The ability of communities to determine their own local services has been reduced. And accountability to local people has been weakened. Local people don't need less power; they need more control.'

Local communities did not need anonymous appointees working out how the local hospital should spend its budget. Nor did they need central restrictions on their powers. They needed elected representatives, held to account by the electorate, with financial independence.

The centralisation of power had been able to continue because our unwritten constitution provided no constitutional safeguards for independent local government power. Without the reinvigoration of the political system, local government power would continue to wither away.

He criticised the Local Government Commission for England for proposing large authorities which would not be able to provide close, effective, accountable government. England would be left with proportionately fewer councils than any other European country.

Earlier, Lady Anson, chairman of the conference, also criticised the commission for emphasising management efficiency and cost, rather than community identity. 'Picking the cheapest is not a robust means of making the right choice of local government for the future. And picking the largest size because you believe it will deliver the most efficient local government is just plain wrong.'

She added: 'We must not allow local government to be turned into just another quango.'