Local Elections: Turnouts suggest healthy interest

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Electors are defying conventional wisdom about a decline in interest in local government and are voting in increasing numbers for local councillors, according to research published today.

Coming less than a week before local elections on 5 May, the report by researchers at the University of Plymouth and the University of Staffordshire, will be welcome news to the 15,000 candidates in London boroughs, metropolitan districts and shire districts in England and Wales and regional councils in Scotland.

Turnout figures are highest in areas where competition between the parties is strongest or where there is an important local controversy.

'Generally, turnout in local elections has been rising, not declining. A healthy local democracy appears to be one where competition is high and where no seat can be adjudged to be safe,' the report concludes.

An analysis of voting figures in London showed a rise in percentage turnout from 35.7 per cent in 1964 to a high of 48.1 per cent in 1990. A similar pattern is seen in the metropolitan districts, up from 32.7 per cent in 1975, a year after local government reorganisation, to 46.2 per cent in 1990, and for shire districts, up from 38.6 per cent in 1973 to a high of 48.6 in 1990.

The study, published by the all-party Commission for Local Democracy, also examined councillor recruitment and turnover and found that many local politicians were paying a high price for their community involvement, with much stress and virtually no financial compensation. Councillors spent an average of 137 hours a month on council business.

Community Identity and Participation in Local Democracy; Commission for Local Democracy, 200-208 Tottenham Court Road, London W1P 9LA; pounds 4.95.