Commentary on an opportunity for parishes and local councils.
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Last week’s elections were a reminder that we need a national debate about where power is held.
There is so far no conclusive indication that turnout was any lower than the norm, although it was certainly far lower than when the same seats were fought four years’ previously when the local polls coincided with a general election.
According to the Electoral Commission, turnout in last year’s contests was 35% – hardly earth-shattering. One might speculate that significantly more than a third of voters would participate had councillors held a wider set of powers and responsibilities.
Too much power is hoarded in Westminster and there is so far little indication that the government intends to pass any ‘repatriated’ powers down to local areas. This factor prompts concern that Brexit will do little to help local communities ‘take back control’, which is surely what Brexit said on its tin.
However, a similar argument can be made about principal authorities. How are they enabling their residents to take back control? Are they engaging sufficiently with their populations to give residents a real input into policy?
Cornwall Council, which recently celebrated 10 years as a unitary authority, is a council proactively empowering its residents. A unitary may bring economies of scale but Truro is far from Penzance or Bude so the county has divided itself into 19 community network areas, which determine much local expenditure, each featuring its councillors and representatives of parishes. These networks, set around villages or towns, are the sort of unit which might well offer a sense of taking back control. Meanwhile, Greater Manchester CA is working to integrate services around neighbourhoods of 30-50,000 people, although how democratic accountability for these areas will develop is currently unclear.
However, not all councils have given sufficient thought to their relationship to their local communities. Cities, counties and indeed districts are usually too big to have a direct relationship with most inhabitants. This is not to say governance at this scale is intrinsically wrong but there needs to be something beneath large councils, giving residents an input into the decisions which most impact on their lives.
Of course, parish and local councils – many of which also held elections last week – offer a democratic means of doing this. However, many principal authorities have been sceptical about their competence and query whether localised bodies elected in polls with modest turnouts are genuinely representative.
One thing that would really boost local councils’ standing would be for them to look less like higher tiers of democracy. Why devolve from one body to another which has exactly the same compositional challenges?
According to 2014 Local Government Association research, principal authority councillors were two-thirds male, 96% white and their average age was 60. Meanwhile, after the 2017 election, the Commons was 68% male, 92% white and had an average age of 50. Research by the National Association of Local Councils shows that parish councillors are 60% male, 93% white British and have an average age of 61. Just 1% are aged 18-25.
The voices of youth are rarely heard at higher tiers. Local councils, which often provide the parks and leisure facilities upon which young people depend, offer an opportunity to redress this. One could make a coherent case to lower the voting age to 14 at this tier of government, or at least to pilot such a move.
Local councils offer a scale to innovate – without the burden of defending the nation or providing social care or children’s services amid budget cuts, they have more freedom to spend their budgets, albeit on a less complicated set of options. The collapse in central government competence and austerity’s impact on principal authorities has set the stage for local councils to become more integral players in the drive to take back control.
Local councils must grasp this opportunity – but to do this they need to become more representative of their local communities and bold.
Nick Golding, editor