Hazel Blears set herself an ambitious task - to empower the people, bridging the gulf between ordinary residents and their political masters.
The communities secretary’s personal commitment to bottom-up politics has never been in doubt but the abandonment of a key plank of her legislative plans suggested the issue is slipping down the government’s list of priorities.
These days it is the economy that matters above all else and, within a year of a general election, parliamentary time is not available for fluffier initiatives to support councillors that have no immediate benefit for the government’s fabled “hardworking families”.
The abandoned Community Empowerment Bill, which was only ever published in draft form, would have brought in incentives to encourage residents to vote, permission for remote attendance and voting for councillors at meetings and ‘parachute’ payments to compensate members for the loss of allowances after they were defeated in elections.
It would also have made it easier for councils to bring in elected mayors and promoted new parish councils.
A question mark had been hanging over the bill for some time. The most eye-catching empowerment proposals, including enhanced petitioning powers and moves to enable residents to better hold council officers to account were included in the Local Democracy, Economic Development & Construction Bill, which recently cleared the House of Lords. The empowerment bill was always regarded as less vital.
One commentator said: “There’s a valid question about why all of this stuff was in a draft bill that was never going to make it into law, even if the general election is held at the latest possible date.”
He speculated that someone had gone through the legislative programme with a red pen, crossing out anything appearing superfluous during a recession. The less voter friendly stuff was hacked off into the separate bill, drawn up to placate Ms Blears but then quietly dropped - conveniently at a time when controversy about her expenses claim and perceived criticism of Gordon Brown left her Cabinet standing at a low ebb.
Others were equally dubious about the empowerment bill. Andy Sawford, chief executive of the Local Government Information Unit, expressed surprise that the government had felt the need to legislate to bring about many of the measures recommended in last year’s Communities in Control empowerment white paper.
“Nearly all of this agenda should be about good practice and not about legislation - people in local government are saying they want to do most of the things in the white paper with or without the bill,” he said. “The upshot to me of all this is that the loss of the bill is no big deal.”
Richard Kemp, leader of the Local Government Association Liberal Democrat group, agreed that legislation was not required for councillors to become more effective champions of local people.
However, he was disappointed the bill’s demise ruled out the parachute payments which were becoming more important as many members saw council work as a full-time job, making them dependent on allowances.
He suggested that instead of legislating, the government should have instead given more cash to the Improvement & Development Agency and Leadership Centre for Local Government to give members practical support. And he called for a culture change within councils to give officer support to members who often lacked expertise to help residents’ complex social security and social care cases. Such support was often regarded as forcing officers into politics, Cllr Kemp complained.
In other bills
- Duty to promote local democracy
- Duty to respond to petitions
- Calling officers to account
- Amendments to Widdicombe rules restricting top officers’ political activity
- Remote meeting attendance and voting for councillors
- ‘Parachute’ payments for councillors on leaving office
- Incentives to vote in local elections
- Removing barriers to elected mayors (The government is currently conducting a consultation)
- Reforming parish council governance (The government is in talks with the National Association of Local Councils)
Most of those who were lukewarm about the deceased bill are at one with Ms Blears’ critique about the demise of local democracy. They realise that councillors – generally middle-aged, male and white - are seen as unrepresentative of the public and the image problem of local representatives has led a drought of candidates.
Fewer people bother to vote in local polls if councillors are rarely the focal point through which residents, neighbourhoods and local groups gain an input into the biggest decisions affecting their lives.
It had been originally hoped last year’s white paper would help make the health and police services more accountable but the Department of Health and Home Office proved resistant. But it is only when all local public services become more influenced by local democracy that residents will be genuinely empowered.
Cllr Kemp pointed out that 75% of public expenditure in his Liverpool City Council ward was channelled through quangos, rather than democratically accountable bodies. “The only way to help local democracy is to get rid of quangos,” he stated.
And it is not just quangos and their sponsoring Whitehall departments that need to change their mindset. Political parties do too.
The Councillors Commission set up by the Department for Communities & Local Government to propose reform suggested in 2007 that councillors should be limited to a maximum of five terms in order to get more people involved in local democracy. The Labour government, anxious not to anger its long-serving councillors – who are generally willing to campaign on its behalf - rejected the recommendation.
Commission member Ben Page, the managing director of Ipsos MORI public affairs, said:“When people are on councils for 20 or 30 years, sometimes unelected as no one stands against them, you don’t see the political class extended.”
But even this would be insufficient to make Ms Blears’ dream reality, he said. “Ultimately it will take a government with a huge majority and with a reasonable economy to redraw the balance of power.”
It is clear that Ms Blears’ Community Empowerment Bill will be mourned by few. The empowerment agenda will edge forward through other legislation but it is not in Parliament that the top-down culture will be transformed into bottom-up.
When Whitehall finally lets go of the strings controlling local public services, one might hope that residents realise their newfound potential influence and become more willing to participate in politics. But, until then, councils and political parties can do much to empower the people whether or not they have a communities secretary who can foist her vision on reluctant colleagues.