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Public interest in local democracy slumps

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Public knowledge and interest in local government and local issues has fallen sharply in recent years, according to the latest audit of how politically engaged the nation is.

With only two months until the local elections are held in 166 councils across England, and probably a general election as well, the Hansard Society’s seventh audit of political engagement paints a worrying picture of the state of local democracy.

The report, conducted against the backdrop of the MPs’ expenses scandal, found that the proportion of the public claiming to have a ‘great deal’ or a ‘fair amount’ of knowledge about their council had fallen to 40%, from 47% three years ago.

Actual knowledge of local government was even lower, with only 36% of the public aware that the statement ‘most of the money that local councils spend is raised locally, through council tax’ is false.

Potentially more worrying is the figure showing that only 19% of respondents claimed to be ‘very interested’ in local issues, compared with 32% when the question was first asked.

Dr Ruth Fox, director of the Hansard Society’s Parliament and Governance Programme, said the figures showed a different trend from national politics.

“Although the public’s perceived knowledge about politics and MPs at the national level has not fluctuated much in the past seven years, the public’s knowledge of local government and interest in local issues has declined significantly,” she said. “This is surely not unrelated to the demise of many local newspapers and the reduced scale of regional TV reporting.”

The audit also found regional variations, with participants in a focus group in London much more likely to think about political issues compared with a similar group in the east Midlands. The report attributed thedistinction to the effect that the London mayor had on local politics.

The decline in political engagement and civil society has been a focus of council activity in recent weeks.

Peterborough City Council has launched the Citizen Power initiative with the RSA and the Arts Council, in which neighbourhood councils will involve residents in grassroots decision making.

Meanwhile, London Councils published a guide to help councillors work more closely with the communities they serve.

“Public trust in politics is at an all-time low,” said Anjana Patel (Con), London Councils’ lead member for equalities. “We want to break down the barriers which stop councillors from communicating effectively with the people they serve.”

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