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FEATURES - WHO CARES?

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I spent a couple of hours this morning refreshing my knowledge of the options for local government grant distributi...
I spent a couple of hours this morning refreshing my knowledge of the options for local government grant distribution. As my attention wandered - unsurprisingly - my eye caught two pieces of news about local government.

The first was that the government had decided to give Kingston upon Hull City Council one last chance to reform itself before sending in the receiver. The second was the Scottish Executive's decision to introduce proportional representation into council elections.

Had I rummaged in my pile of old newspapers for nuggets missed over the holidays, I would have read: local government minister Nick Raynsford is determined to press on with postal ballots; and the government has backed off from ordering councils to hold ballots for elected mayors - it is a wonder what a monkey, a former policeman and a young Tory can do in the north-east.

As I digested this, the heretical thought stole up on me - who cares? Everybody is touched by local government, but I would lay odds that no one does care.

I suspect part of the reason is that so much energy within local government is taken up managing its relations with government at the cost of time spent delivering services to the public - the great gendarmerie of inspections, best value audits and now comprehensive performance assessments absorb a huge amount of resources.

Governments of every hue seem incapable of resisting the urge to keep pulling the plant up by the roots to see how it is getting along. They can hardly complain if the motto of every council inscribed on the mayoral seat is 'blame the government'. While government prescribes the outcome, the process and the funding of policies, any council which does not blame the government needs a new information director.

The great and the good indulge in a lot of wailing and gnashing of teeth about the low turnouts in local elections, but the response is to devise more exciting methods of voting and information on council performance, not to give us something more important to vote about. I doubt if one citizen in 100 has the foggiest idea of where his or her council comes in the league tables.

I can see the argument for PR in local government - to de-throne the one-party states. I suspect that officers might quite like a system which brings a balanced leadership within cabinets. Quite what it will do for the Cinderella function of scrutiny if the leading parties settle into cosy coalition is another matter. Nor am I sure it will do much for electoral participation if it creates fudgy coalitions with weak party discipline - local politicians are often much more interested in the politics of the locality than the politics of party.

How much difference would PR make? One-party states can be overthrown - Sheffield, Hull, Islington - and, if the public may not be particularly alert to the identities of 'plodding' councils, they can exact sharp revenge on the downright incompetent and the corrupt.

Meanwhile, the battle over son of area costadjustment and resource equalisation, sparseness and the CPAs is keeping finance officers engaged. Nick Raynsford is even giving MPs a seminar on the proposals. Now what did Lord Palmerston say about the Schleswig-Holstein question?

David Curry

MP, Skipton and Ripon

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