John Williams: Town halls are crying out for fresh leadership

From a talk by the director of the new Local Government Network, at a seminar about the White Paper on local government
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The Independent Online

It is doubly ironic that the new White Paper on Local Government is published just as Government reports on the riots in several of our northern towns point to the significance of local political leadership in building social cohesion and effective participation. It appears to me that these documents have been written in parallel universes.

There are of course, many proposals in the White Paper that are welcome but there is little in the way of radical challenge and virtually nothing to capture the public's imagination, to transform the moribund state of local politics. In contrast to its predecessor, published in 1998, the tone of this White Paper on the democratic front is about reassurance rather than challenge.

The collapse in voting turnout is given a cursory mention but the response is a disingenuous suggestion that reforming the cycle of local government elections or electronic voting may be the answer. There is no discussion, let alone promotion, of the option of introducing proportional representation or the case for elected mayors.

Amid the fanfare of cutting red tape and the provision of new freedoms and lighter-touch inspection, the reality of the White Paper is that, more often than not, it comes down on the side of caution. There is no discussion of new roles for councils or a requirement on other public bodies to have regard to the priorities and needs of local communities as represented by the local authority. The rewards for the best or the sanctions for the persistently bad look no more than, respectively, mediocre and modest. Would you, for example, be inspired to stand in an election for your local council by the exciting new freedom to use funds raised from dog fouling fines?

There is the welcome proposal to introduce business improvement districts – but all other tax-raising measures are kicked into touch to be dealt with by a review committee to be chaired by the Local Government minister. Given the recent, high-profile debate at a national level about the use of taxation to fund improvements in public services this seems like a real missed opportunity.

The heart of the paper consists of a series of worthy measures to ensure that central-local relations are better managed in the future. The bigger-picture, however, is that the White Paper in effect signals that central government no longer sees local government as a significant political institution except in one broad sense, namely a place to keep party activists occupied in between general elections.

To deliver local government that is accountable to local needs and effective at delivering improvements in public services and community leadership requires a concerted attempt over a decade or more to revitalise political leadership and the political process. This is really hard. It requires brave political leadership from Government and political parties to take on their own internal vested interests in maintaining the status quo.

There is a remote possibility that the modernisers in New Labour are resting and that radicalism will return. Meanwhile, the focus of attention shifts to the local level and building capacity among those local authorities that do want to innovate and demonstrate the value of local democracy.

There are opportunities that will be created by the managerial freedoms talked about in the White Paper and the new powers to town halls granted under the previous 1999 and 2000 Acts. Now it will be up to local political leaders to demonstrate further what local government can do in terms of popular community leadership. The White Paper may see no point to local politics. It is up to local councils to prove it wrong.