Posted by:12 August, 2009
When David Cameron claimed his Control Shift green paper represented “radical devolution to every part of the country”, this magazine was not alone in expressing a healthy dose of scepticism.
The communities secretary John Denham has engaged in an even bigger bout of hubris, describing his consultation into strengthening local democracy as “the biggest single transfer of power to elected councillors for a generation”.
To recap, the main proposal in the consultation was to expand and enhance councils’ scrutiny role so they are able to summon and interrogate the people responsible for more than £100m of public expenditure each year.
Scrutiny is “the lion that hasn’t roared”, Mr Denham insisted, claiming a damning report about local road works from a council scrutiny committee should carry sufficient weight to make a recalcitrant water company change its ways.
So how does Mr Denham see his scrutiny proposals working?
In some ways, the announcements on scrutiny summon images of hit US TV show The Wire.
The series, about a range of civic institutions and criminal organisations in the city of Baltimore, chronicles the rise of Democratic councilman Tommy Carcetti. Carcetti uses his position as chairman of the council sub-committee for public safety as a bully pulpit, partly to shame the police commissioner into making changes to the police service but mainly to launch his bid for city mayor.
The position is portrayed as a hugely influential one. But a number of the prerequisites for UK councillors to be similarly empowered appear to be missing.
The police commissioners who get dragged to the town hall in the series are highly visible and directly appointed by a locally elected politician (the mayor). In the UK, the people most likely to be summoned will be faceless employees of quangos, accountable to their parent departments in London.
The councillors are able to tip off strong, well-resourced local TV stations and newspapers when there will be a lively session worth turning up for. With local newspapers virtually dead on their feet in the UK and not inclined to cover council matters, local authorities could potentially thunder away at whoever they like with their residents none the wiser.
America’s political system allows for ambitious young politicians to prove themselves on city councils before moving up to either positions as mayor or to state-level government or further. In the UK, the politically ambitious head straight for national government. Councillors, whilst hugely committed, tend to be less inclined to wring every last drop of power or influence their positions allow them.
From Civic Regalia
LGC’s political editor Dan Drillsma-Milgrom blogs on all aspects of town hall life