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SCRUTINEER-VOCAL POINT

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Red tape limits electoral power, says Ciaran Guifoyle ...
Red tape limits electoral power, says Ciaran Guifoyle

Democratic community leadership requires two things - whoever is leader is able to make autonomous decisions, and the leader is accountable to the community.

Both these fundamental requirements have been steadily eroded in recent years. Ironically, the erosion has more often than not gone by the name of democratic modernisation. This has proceeded at such a pace that the last thing anyone who wanted to lead their community would do is become a councillor.

Education is the key area where local autonomy has been taken from councillors and given to unelected community representatives.

The devolution of local education budgets may have an anti-bureaucratic ring to it, but by treating education departments as, at best, mere collators of best practice and, at worst, sources of red tape, the Department for Education & Skills has undermined the role this body once had as the focus for all educational aspirations.

Everyone has a right to determine - via their councillor - the future direction of society. Unfortunately, budget devolution means this direction is determined by parents and teachers with little or no constituency, rather than by the public.

Partnerships are another flagship of democratic modernisation. While their cross-sector representatives give partnerships a democratic ring, the process of giving power to volunteers from other sectors has undermined the councillor's ability to innovate.

No matter how public-spirited, the private sector is ultimately accountable only to the bottom line, and the voluntary sector is usually accountable to its paymaster. The links between a partnership and the general public are therefore highly indirect.

Even councillors with responsibility for the running of the council have their hands tied by the requirements of best value. The notion of being elected by popular mandate and making decisions on behalf of those who elected you is now considered an abuse of unaccountable power.

Finally, the abolition of committees and the introduction of scrutiny panels has meant even the most enthusiastic of councillors are restricted in their ability to influence policy.

Who, given these conditions, would stand for election? Perhaps more importantly, why should anyone turnout for a local election if whoever they vote for will only be tied up with the red tape of modernisation?

Before local government rushes into e-voting, postal voting and supermarket-based polling stations, maybe it should consider what it is offering the voter.

Ciaran Guilfoyle

Local government accountant

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