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Weak democracy is a false economy

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Last week was Local Democracy Week but it seems unlikely that it will have been marked by as much activity as before budget cuts began to bite. This is unfortunate. Now more than ever there are strong reasons why local government should remember and promote its foundation in local democracy.

I was pleased to see the Solace Summit communiqué emphasising councils’ role in promoting local democracy. However, I remain concerned that, as reported in the recent LGC Localism Panel coverage (LGC 22 Sept 2011), too often local government’s ‘officer class’ ignores, manipulates and generally underplays the contribution that elected members can make to local leadership.

Some direct quotations from chief executives illustrate these three tendencies:

  • “The council changed from one party to another and back again, and we didn’t really notice.”
  • “I’ll just get the boys [group leaders] in and sort them out.”
  • “Members decide; officers implement. If you want to make decisions go and get elected.”

Even the last of these underplays the idea of an equal partnership which creates the most effective approach to local public leadership.

There are three reasons why this matters: representation, participation and accountability. First of all if local government has a special role in the government’s localism agenda, it can only be because of its democratic mandate. Other bodies can argue that they are closer to the communities they serve, or more efficient at delivering the services that communities need. But only local government has the legitimacy to allocate scarce resources between communities’ different / competing priorities. This comes not from being led by effective senior officers, but because of its locally elected representatives.

But if election turnouts remain low and councillors’ representativeness remains weak, then clearly that legitimacy is undermined. Councils cannot continue to leave all of that responsibility to local political parties on the grounds that “it’s too political”. The ‘Be a councillor’ campaign supported by Sir Merrick Cockell when he was chair of London Councils illustrates what local authorities can do.

The campaign promoted, in a non-party-political way, the idea of being a councillor and provided support and basic information about the role to under-represented groups. If local councils – and local council officers – want a role in localism, they must strengthen their claim to that role. That means strengthening local representative democracy, not sidelining the outcome.

Secondly, the other side of the democratic coin to representation is participation. If and when they wish to do so, people need more opportunities to influence local services than merely voting once every four years. Councillors have an important role here too, as extreme participants themselves, and as a conduit for helping others get involved.

I have previously described councillors as the “democratic wing of the Big Society.” The best local councillors already act as facilitators and sign-posters in their local communities, enabling local people to get their voices and views heard and empowering them to take control over their lives. Too often they do this with scant support or recognition from the council and it is thus unsurprising that some councillors do not take this facilitative role and can instead seem overly defensive of their own elected position.

Thirdly, at the heart of many of the public service reforms lies accountability. Local democracy – both representative and participative – is a crucial part of what the Centre for Public Scrutiny (CfPS) calls the “web of accountability”.

How will powerful elected executives like city mayors and police commissioners be held to account? How will taxpayers know that divested service delivery bodies like staff-owned mutuals, social enterprises and voluntary groups continue to use their once-publicly owned assets in the public interest? Who will challenge powerful professional bodies such as clinical commissioning groups and ensure they listen to patients and the public?

Commissioning arrangements, transparency, public pressure and individual choice and competition all have a role. But on an on-going, day-to-day basis, it is local councillors who could help deliver much of this accountability, not least through their scrutiny role – using new powers from the Localism and Health & Social Care Bills. Yet CfPS knows that scrutiny functions, for example, are reducing their scope as resources decline.

For legitimacy, participation and accountability reasons, a weak local democracy is a false economy, and all in local government must recognise that. The SOLACE communiqué does so, but we need to see words translated into real actions that embed an understanding of local democracy and accountability in practice at local level.

Jessica Crowe, executive director, Centre for Public Scrutiny

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