Leading article: Councils need more power

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Today will will be dominated by the AV referendum. But it will also see elections for 279 English councils. In the world of local government there are not many bigger days than this. Yet the turnout is unlikely to be high. If today follows the pattern of previous local polls, participation rates will be less than two-thirds the level of general elections. So why the gulf in democratic participation? The answer is simple: local councils lack power. For some 30 years national governments, of all political complexions, have been steadily stripping councils of power. The result is that the public has relatively little incentive to vote in local elections. When so many decisions are taken at the centre, the political makeup of the local council looks relatively unimportant.

And the Coalition, despite its localist rhetoric, is doing nothing that will change this unsatisfactory state of affairs. It is true that the Coalition "un-ringfenced" certain grants from the centre, giving councils more discretion over how they spend their funds. But this has been accompanied by massive cuts to those payments. This looks more like devolving responsibility for cuts than devolving power. The imposition of a council tax freeze also exposes the centralising instincts of ministers. A genuinely localist central government would allow councils to raise as much, or as little, tax as they believed necessary and to face the electoral consequences.

Other aspects of the Coalition's behaviour have been anti-localist too. Councils' authority over local schools has been eroded by the previous government's academies (which are funded directly by Whitehall) and will be further eroded by the Coalition's extension of that programme. There were no plans to involve local councillors in the new health commissioning consortia which will replace Primary Care Trusts – a criticism made recently by the Commons health committee.

Turnout in local elections will increase when national politicians surrender genuine power to their local counterparts. When that day arrives local elections will matter and the public will see a purpose in turning out to vote. Yet that day looks a depressingly long way off.

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