Leading Article: Local democracy in poor health

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The Independent Online
For the sake of a petty plot, Tory councillors in Westminster are said to have housed 150 families in tower blocks with a known asbestos problem. They subsequently did nothing to monitor the families' health. This is a gruesome cynicism even by the scandalous standards of municipal government. The accused councillors - in a report commissioned by the current Tory leadership from an unimpeachable county official - turn out to be the same crew whose policies for housing the homeless were labelled as culpable and surchargeable by the District Auditor.

Lady Shirley Porter, the council's flamboyant leader in the Eighties, made local government live a little; she was a personality with vision and ambition. Local government has all too few of them. Yet her administrative record was a disgrace - we have the word of the District Auditor, John Magill, on that. So it's no wonder Labour is jumping up and down at being handed yet more evidence of the Conservatives' record for sleaze in government, local as well as central. After all, the Tory Party chairman Brian Mawhinney's eyes and ears are ever twitching on the look out for examples of local Labour extravagance or wrong-doing. But Labour should be wary. Loony leftism as demonstrated by Lambeth and Liverpool in the Eighties is still fresh in the memory. According to figures provided last week by the Audit Commission, both of them have a long way to go before they can be said to be providing residents with even minimally efficient services.

So before engaging in another bout of ritualised mudslinging, all those who care for the health of local democracy - as well as the health of people as vulnerable as those families stuck in the poisonous blocks by Westminster - should pause. If local democracy worked, the voters of Westminster would have turfed out the Tories long ago. Unfortunately, in Westminster, as in the mostly Labour fiefdoms in big inner cities, democracy has become so clogged that ruling parties often seem immune from electoral retribution. That is why the public needs external watchdogs such as the Audit Commission.

Yet the Westminster saga has shown these are imperfect instruments of accountability. Mr Magill has been investigating Westminster for six years. His provisional report appeared two years ago. When he produces his final report sometime in the next month that will not be the end of it. Appeals will drag it out even further. The Audit Commission seems unable to investigate other important questions such as the distribution of central government grants to councils. Westminster's unparalleled good fortune in receiving such proportionately high revenue grants demands some unbiassed study.

It is, primarily, up to local government to clean up its act. Westminster councillors should pull out all the stops to offer the affected families advice and help. The chief executive, Bill Roots, is trying to make a fresh start for the council by issuing a code of corporate behaviour that could become a model for other local authorities. That would make a refreshing change from Lady Porter's days.