“Who governs Britain?” was the famous question prime minister Ted Heath put to the public in 1974 when he called a general election.
The question is repeated in my new Centre for Policy Studies report, taking that as its title. And the answer, as far as the services that most people use on most days, is local government.
From bins to roads, through leisure services to planning, it is councillors, not MPs or cabinet ministers, who have the greatest effect on daily life in the UK. It is also them making many of the policies with the most profound impact.
This is why they’ve rightly been called the frontline of democracy, and why – whatever party they represent – citizens and fellow politicians should be grateful for such service.
But my report is a mixed bag for local government. First, the good news: when the Centre for Policy Studies asked citizens who they think acts most in their interests, local government emerged as the most trusted layer of the British system.
Now here’s the bad news: just 22% trust local government, and 30% say no elected official puts the public interest first.
These figures are depressing, if sadly unsurprising. But they reflect perception rather than reality. Britain is a country with corruption figures among the lowest in the world, and councillors have recently had to wrestle with hugely challenging circumstances.
It’s a relief then that digging deeper into the research gives a more nuanced view. Some 54% and 56% of respondents trust parish councils and local government respectively to ‘do the right thing by you’ on a specific issue. The equivalent figure is just 42 per cent for MPs.
So what has gone wrong with democracy in the UK? Too many feel that MPs and councillors don’t have to live with the consequences of their decisions, and too many people believe that the political process is flawed.
My report proposes that we tackle both those problems. Some simpler suggestions involve making political advertising more transparent, encouraging local councillors to engage more with citizens online, and getting schools to teach children not to believe everything they read online.
This, coupled with a digital, centralised register of members’ interest, would help to reveal the miniscule levels of corruption, and tackle much bad practice online.
But there are other more substantial changes that could build on work already beginning to address the democratic deficit. In Lincolnshire and Taunton Deane, for instance, councils are devolving planning powers down to parish and town councils.
The idea arises partly because it is possible, and partly because it reassures voters that those who make decisions are those who understand the area. But why don’t local plans include much more localised style guides, giving local people an input into larger developments?
At a higher level, why are the benefits of development to a local community often so opaque? Those 200 houses in an application should explicitly come with a standard way of saying what it means for investment in local schools, broadband or health services.
As my report puts it, a “relentless devolution of powers and responsibilities down the democratic food chain to the lowest possible level” should show councillors do understand the consequence of decisions, while also attracting more people into local government.
There are also structural changes. The County Councils Network has previously calculated reorganisation could save 0.8% of national GDP, but there is precious little research on what the optimal size of a local authority unit would be, accounting for rurality, sparsity and other local characteristics. The government is currently working towards a new devolution framework, and this should form a crucial part of that.
One final opportunity: the Freedom of Information Act has not fulfilled its purpose. Too often people ask for things that don’t tell them what they want to know, or are denied the information they seek.
So a crucial part of my “Who Governs Britain?” report is a right to know an answer to that question. On each significant decision local government or the private sector companies involved should publish who made it and why.
The aim is to make it clear that there’s good sense, necessity and accountability. These are all things everyone in local government largely knows exist already, but the measures should go some way to addressing public concerns.
Matt Warman (Con), MP for Boston and Skegness