Local councillors, like members of Parliament, are elected by the people. In theory, therefore, they have a popular mandate for their actions. Yet central government has steadily reduced their freedom of manoeuvre, especially in finance. Since 1984 (1982 in Scotland), councillors have not been free to set local taxes at the level they think fit, a discretion they had enjoyed for centuries. And the way local authorities provide their services has been altered by legislation. Changes include compulsory competitive tendering and the community care system.
The result is that local authorities have been virtually legislated out of existence even though, as with the Greater London Council in 1986, they have enjoyed popular support. Now they are being comprehensively reorganised, in another move imposed from the centre.
The fundamental problem is that in England, unlike the other developed democracies, public, ministers and civil servants alike attach little importance to local government. The public is apathetic; as often as not it uses its local elections, as it did last week, to pass judgement on central government, not local councillors. And many civil servants are openly contemptuous of local authorities. If the decline is to be reversed, local and central government need to make urgent changes in five areas.
First, it is clear that much of the present local government structure does not command popular support. However good the economic and developmental reasons for their establishment, new county areas such as Avon, Humberside, Cleveland and Tyne and Wear have never won public affection. The abolition of Rutland, the Ridings of Yorkshire, the Parts of Lincolnshire and other traditional units of local government, is still resented. The Local Government Commission is charged to produce areas in England that will command community loyalty; but people commonly relate either to very small areas such as a street, a village or an estate, or to large counties or regions such as Lancashire, Yorkshire, Shropshire or 'Geordieland'.
Our local authorities are too large to command parochial loyalty but too small to reflect regional identities. If the commission cannot resolve this conundrum, the authorities themselves should pay much more attention to developing their internal decentralisation schemes - neighbourhood offices and neighbourhood committees - which establish units that people can relate to. This need will be more urgent in Scotland and Wales, where the new structures are being imposed by the territorial ministries without taking local soundings. Second, local government should urgently consider proportional representation. Introduction of the single transferable vote would preserve councillors' allegiance to their wards, even if the latter had to be a bit larger. This would reduce the predictability of results, and hence increase public interest in voting. It would also reduce the extent to which, in some parts of the country, one-party 'states' that lack effective opposition become prey to complacency, inefficiency and, occasionally, corruption.
Established local government leaders would have less to fear from this change than they might imagine. They would just have to be a bit more energetic in campaigning to retain public support, and that itself would raise public interest.
Third, the introduction of a strong core executive within local authorities should be urgently addressed. Local government suffers from chronic departmental isolationism and poor co-ordination. Such co-ordinators as the leader of the council, the chief executive officer and the policy and resources committee need to be strengthened. And such strong focal points would enhance the prosperity and welfare of the local community that flow from an authority's dealings with other organisations.
More radically, it might be worth adopting the system under which the leading local authority personality is directly elected by the people: the American 'strong' mayor and the German Burgermeister are successful examples. The direct election of the leading council figure would produce an exciting electoral contest, with strong personalities competing for office. This has to be the way to increase public interest and hence electoral turnout. The leader would be the focus for internal co-ordination and external leadership.
Fourth, local authorities must continue efforts to make their services more attractive and accessible. Provision of pleasant offices, telephone jingles and polite service - the stuff of 'consumerism' and the Citizen's Charter - are worthy, but not enough. Nor are efforts to improve accuracy and response times, desirable though they are. People are not merely consumers of services; they are also citizens with rights, which need to be recognised through election of and access to councillors with real decision-making power and participation in that decision-making. For example, the contraction of public participation in town and country planning decisions that characterised the Thatcher years should be reversed.
Fifth, local authorities should be given sufficient financial freedom to make decisions on spending and taxation that give electors a meaningful basis on which to judge the level of services they want and are prepared to pay for.
The practice of capping should be abolished. Ministers must trust the people to control extravagant councils and not, paternalistically, do it for them. Government grants should be paid to fund a good level of services, and local electors should then be left to decide how much more provision they want and will pay for through the council tax. This agenda will not be popular in many quarters within local government or Whitehall, but it is no use councillors, officers or civil servants just carrying on while the system decays around them. Debate about a new agenda, quickly followed by action, is urgently required. Inertia is no longer an option.
The author is Professor of Government at the University of Northumbria, Newcastle upon Tyne.
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