Devolution should mean giving more power to councils

1st July, 2014 7:00 am

Whatever the outcome of September’s referendum on Scottish independence, there needs to be a radical change to the relationship between Westminster and Whitehall and the regions and cities of England.

We have muddled through now for a decade and a bit with an extremely asymmetric model of devolution – relatively big powers for Scotland, some for Wales, a little bit for London and the old centralised model for the rest of England once John Prescott’s regional devolution schemes were rejected in the north. This leaves England as the most centralised system of government in Europe.

UK centralised power London devolution

The situation has got worse rather than better under the Tories as Eric Pickles’ rhetoric about localism has turned out to be nothing but hot air. Pickles himself has interfered at a micro level in local councils, dictating to them whether they can publish free newspapers to inform residents about services. Immediately on taking office he axed plans to create more unitary councils (i.e. powerful single councils rather than the duplicatory system of having both county and district councils in some areas). He has shown utter contempt for councillors themselves with petty attacks such as removing their pension rights, making it more difficult for cabinet members overseeing hugely important services and budgets to do this full time. Michael Gove’s Free Schools have accelerated the erosion of the role of local education authorities, so that an increasing number of schools are answerable only to him as Secretary of State and to no one elected in the area the school serves.

Most importantly, local government has borne the brunt of four years of coalition austerity. Because other spending departments have been protected and Pickles was either unable or unwilling to stand up for councils in the spending round process, the cuts to local authority budgets have been devastating and have left many councils left only able to deliver statutory services and having to abandon many discretionary services which are vital to the quality of life of local residents. The axe has fallen heaviest on the councils in the poorest areas of the country, where services are most needed, because Pickles has rigged the formula used to allocate funds so that it favours Tory areas. Labour controlled councils have lost 16.9% of their budgets on average since 2010 whilst Tory councils have only lost 6.6%. The ten poorest areas have suffered even more, with Liverpool and Hackney seeing 27% of their funding cut whilst Wokingham and Surrey Heath have actually seen their funding increased!

eric pickles

Cynically, the Government has assumed that disproportionately cutting local councils compared to central government departments, and within that cutting the Labour-run areas the most, would mean voters might blame local Labour councils for the cuts and Labour would descend into infighting over the tactical response to this as it did in the 1980s when the most left wing councils tried to confront Thatcher by refusing to set a legal rate. This hasn’t worked because voters are not that gullible and Labour councillors have been remarkably united and disciplined.

This is not a sustainable model if Scotland becomes independent. The rump UK is likely to have a Tory dominated Parliament far more frequently than now if there is no anti-Tory contingent of MPs from Scotland. Areas in the big cities and North that are virtually Tory-free will be condemned to perpetual Tory government making all the big decisions that affect them with no local mandate. That’s a recipe for civil unrest.

Nor is it sustainable if Scotland stays in the UK but with devo-max, a big extension of devolved powers. Why should Scotland get to make key decisions about the scale and shape of local services while the West Midlands or the North East have to implement cuts designed in Whitehall by Tory ministers from the Home Counties?

Labour needs to be campaigning for and designing a proper pattern of regional and local devolution for England.

This needs to be based on the principle of subsidiarity. Power should be devolved to the lowest, most local level, nearest the people, at which it can be effectively exercised. The test should be “is there an overwhelming reason why this needs to be decided in Whitehall and Westminster and not at a lower level?”

Principally, this should mean devolution of power to councils. Elected local councillors should be empowered to take key decisions regarding configuration and provision of all the key public services that serve their area. For instance, when we talk about a middle layer of support and accountability in education between schools and Whitehall, why reinvent the wheel when we already have an elected tier called local councils. Proper local democratic oversight of the NHS should also be introduced – if councils can be trusted to oversee public health services, why not all health services, rather than just the scrutiny function they currently have? If councils want to delegate service delivery decisions further to local communities (“double devolution”) that should be for them to decide locally, it shouldn’t be imposed by Whitehall.

At the same time we should deliver the most obvious saving there is in public services and abolish all the remaining two tier (county and district) councils so that every part of England has one powerful unitary council which is clearly accountable to residents for all local services. It is absurd that there are swathes of the country with two sets of councillors (often actually the same people claiming two sets of allowances), two sets of council back office functions, and total confusion for residents about who delivers and is accountable for what. The situation we have in my new home town Oxford is unacceptable. The key big budget services like schools and social services are run by Tory and Independent county councillors, none of whom are elected from wards in the city. This is profoundly undemocratic and unaccountable. The city council meanwhile, with not a single Tory councillor, has no power over some of the services that residents most care about. In areas where council housing has been transferred en bloc to a registered social landlord, some district councils are little more than a planning committee plus filling in the entry form for the annual Anyshire in Bloom competition. And why should people in Dover or Margate have decisions about their schools taken by a County Council based in Maidstone, over 30 miles away and a town many of them have never visited – feeding a disengagement and bitter sense of neglect. It was the same when I was parliamentary candidate in Castle Point, people in South Essex thought that the County Council persistently neglected them at the expense of the more rural Tory areas.

If we are going to devolve power we also need to devolve control over the money needed to pay for services. The funding formulas need to be reviewed so they properly support the needs of the most deprived communities. Legal safeguards need to be introduced to stop a future Eric Pickles rigging the formula so that it produces perverse outcomes like a funding boost for affluent Surrey Heath in the middle of a savage round of cuts. We should look at ways of ring-fencing parts of the local government budget so that proper funding of local services has statutory protection from the kind of excessive share of central government austerity it has taken in recent years e.g. a statutory guarantee that each local authority will receive a certain minimum level of per capita funding.

Regional government should be introduced for each English region but on a slimline model with a small regional assembly like the 24 member GLA responsible only for those services such as policing, transport and strategic planning and economic development that need to be coordinated across several local authorities. I am agnostic about whether such assemblies should be directly elected or elected indirectly by and from the councillors in their region.

If we are going to stick with an unelected House of Lords let’s ensure all the nations and regions have a voice there by allocating seats automatically to the leaders of the largest city councils and the new regional assemblies.

The re-empowerment of local government needs to start in our own party. Historically local government has been the second pillar of Labour in the country alongside the trade unions. Yet it has no direct representation at Annual Conference, a handful of seats on the National Policy Forum and only two on the NEC. The fact that there is a currently a seriously contested election for these two seats, between Simon Henig and Jim McMahon and between Ann Lucas and Alice Perry, is great, but actually all four would be excellent NEC members and at a minimum there should be four local government reps on the NEC. There should be greater representation of councillors on the party’s regional boards (some have only one councillor rep) and council Labour Groups should have delegates and the right to submit motions to regional and national party conferences.

The changes brought in under Refounding Labour mean the levy paid by councillors is now one of the main sources of funding for the national party. It was already a major source of funding for many CLPs. Yet we don’t hear the party having to listen to what councillors want in policy or organisation or candidate selection in the way that the unions get their voice heard.

Thirty years ago local government was an albatross round Labour’s neck, with the “loony left” epithet applied by the press and Tories to councils which were more interested in having their own foreign policy, creating nuclear free zones, or confronting the Tory government in a doomed municipal Charge of the Light Brigade than collecting the bins and improving schools. Even 15 years ago a succession of failing local authorities embarrassed the Labour government, let down residents and opened a second front where the Lib Dems started to make inroads in inner city areas.

Now Labour’s councils are a source of pride for the party and an example to the electorate of what Labour in power can achieve. Labour councillors are the backbone of the party’s campaigning.

Isn’t it time we gave local councils the powers and funding they need to truly represent and deliver for their residents, and councillors the voice they deserve in our own structures?

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  • EricBC

    Power should be devolved to the lowest, most local level, nearest the people, at which it can be effectively exercised.

    The concept of subsidiarity has attached to it several concomitants, including that there should be a proportional increase in oversight and local democracy to match devolved power. But in all the articles on this revolution of devolution, these are never mentioned.

    With the internet we now have the means whereby we can extend democracy. But using online facilities to upgrade local democracy is also never mentioned. The entire focus is upon spending.

    • PoundInYourPocket

      “With the internet we now have the means whereby we can extend democracy”
      If that means engaging people in decision making , then I’d agree. But not if it just means endless and mindless public referenda that consists of voting but not engaging. When my local council polled residents on their spending preferences the results were frannkly disturbing. People need to know the issues before being allowed to cast a vote.

      • gunnerbear

        “When my local council polled residents on their spending preferences the results were frannkly disturbing.”

        You mean – despite saying in public polls that they wanted to pay higher taxes – when it came to the crunch, decent, hard pressed, hard working men and women said, “Cut the tax bill….make savings…get rid of the non-jobs….”

        People do know the issues – they know that councils waste money and that’s there’s always cash for lining the pockets of the senior staff, the councillors expenses and cash for lots of, err, marginally useful backroom roles – whilst the frontline always get a kicking.

        Besides, I always thought voting was engaging and if people vote so be it. It’s localism in action or do you not trust the voters?

  • Excellent analysis and proposals, most of which I’d agree with. There are some I’d question or be more radical.

    Surely if Labour is to radically reform and improve local government then surely it is right that we follow the principle of subsidiarity while doing so. Therefore it is right to “delegate service delivery decisions further to local communities” as part of the reform and it shouldn’t be left to local authorities to decide what subsidiarity means for them.

    I’m strongly in favour of regional assemblies based on the model of the London assembly. However, it absolutely must be directly elected. To have it elected by councillors is so anti-democratic and is a recipe or the dead-hand of cronyism. It lacks transparency and therefore accountability. By devolution we should be increasing transparency, not harking back to antiquated ‘delegate’ style voting systems of the last century.

    Luke is right to criticise the Tories attacks on councillors’ pension rights, but we need to go farther and examine everything that encourages and discourages people from being councillors. How allowances work, the duties expected of councillors, the support they receive and the times of meetings. Despite improvements the average profile of councillors is still too white, too old and too male.

    Finally, Labour Party rules need more reform than just what Luke suggests. Yes, more representation on the NEC. But also reforms to how local, internal democracy works. Labour group leaders must be elected by ‘one member one vote’, not just by their fellow councillors (although they should have the right to nominate with a quite low threshold to ensure members have a choice). We must also look at how we prepare people to be councillors and provide better support for people from more diverse backgrounds. All women shortlists are fine as far as they go, but don’t address all the problems. This includes looking at how selections work to improve participation. It can’t be right that a handful of party members pick a councillor for a safe Labour ward.

    • markmyword49

      “Labour group leaders must be elected by OMOV”
      I disagree. The voters elected a councillor for a ward. It’s then for those councillors to elect a leader from amongst their number. They know who will be an effective leader and its rarely the most charismatic among them. Most party members (of any party)have little real knowledge or information about councillors from other wards.

      • That’s true at the moment, but the whole point of subsidiarity is to devolve power to the lowest appropriate level so if that’s good for local government, why isn’t it good enough for the Labour Party?
        My suggestion was that councillors should be those who nominated therefore they’d only be putting forward candidates who they thought would be effective. Members would simply choose from the effective candidates. It is the job of candidates to ensure party members have ‘real knowledge’ about them.
        If the candidates are incapable of communicating and connecting with Labour Party members then there is even less likelihood of them being able to communicate and connect with the wider electorate. It is patronising to suggest that members would simply choose the most ‘charismatic’ candidate. After all they didn’t chose the most charismatic as our national leader.

        • swatnan

          We need more directly elected Mayors.

          • MikeHomfray

            Definitely not. Boss politics is the last thing we need. I would not vote in a mayoral election – other than for someone committed to abolishing the post.

          • PoundInYourPocket

            Liam Byrne ? Sion Simon ? no thanks.
            The elected mayoral system was booted out by the public who saw it as a platform for careerist and populist candidates. Would be tin-pot sherrifs. Never again thanks. There’s something deeply disturbing and undemocratic about investing so much power in one presitential role. Yes they can make quick executive decisions and break through bureucracy , but so can dictators.

  • markmyword49

    What do you expect from Pickles? He’s an arch Thatcherite. In the 80s he was leader of Bradford council and the results are still there for all to see.
    “Labour councils are a source of pride for the party”
    Maybe for party central but here in Kirklees the voters see Labour as the ones that cut services. At an unconscious level they may understand that its the result of central government policy and funding but Labour didn’t enthuse them enough to change the complexion of the council in May. All wards returned candidates from the same parties who held them before the election.

  • JoeDM

    Power for local people to vote on industrial developments in their area?
    Power for local people to vote on new roads in their area?
    Power for local people to vote on the type of schools in their area?
    Power for local people to vote on housing developments in their area?
    Power for local people to vote on hospital provision in their area?
    Power for local people to vote on Council Tax rates in their area?
    Power for local people to vote on weekly bin collections in their area?
    Power for local people to vote on ‘traveller’ sites, etc….. in their area?

    Mmmm…. I doubt it.

    The LibLabCon establishment will find it very difficult to give normal people the ability to decide local issues locally !!!

    • ColinAdkins

      Power for local people to vote down industrial developments as long as they don’t expect to work in industrial developments agreed elsewhere.
      Power for local people to vote down new roads as long as they are restricted from driving on new roads agreed elsewhere.
      Power for local people to vote on the type of school provided they pay for it.
      Power for local people to vote on housing developments provided they are restricted from moving to housing developments agreed elsewhere.
      Power for local people to vote on hospital provision provided they pay for it.
      Power for local people to vote on Council Tax rates provided the consequences are hypothecated and does not run counter to the vote on schools.
      Power for local people to vote on weekly bin collections provide they pay for it and it is not contradicted by their vote on Council tax.
      Power for local people to decide on where ‘traveller’ sites are located in their area.

      • Tokyo Nambu

        “Power for local people to vote on the type of school provided they pay for it.”

        Really? So if 51% vote for all the local schools to be aggressively religious, the other 49% can just get stuffed? That’s going to make for fun in cities like Birmingham, isn’t it?

        • ColinAdkins

          Once again my irony failed on you. I must try harder.

    • gunnerbear


      Don’t panic, it isn’t going to happen. Every govt. talks about devolving powers to local Councils but once a Minister has had the odd beating or two due to local govt. screw-ups, the Minister rapidly backs away from handing out any power.

  • David Callam

    I agree with the principle of subsidiarity, but that shouldn’t lead to a parish council being able to prevent the development of a new railway or a road network. The present planning system is bedevilled by noisey minorities who know how to manipulate the system to hold back a development to which a majority do not object. I believe the region should be the central authority, with less power for central government, but less too for borough and other lower-tier councils.

    • ColinAdkins

      The principle I agree with but most people frankly can’t be bothered and therefore priorites may be distorted. Further I think it is a recipe for NIMBYism of the worst kind ie local people objecting to housing developments whilst complaining their children cannot find somewhere to live.

      • David Callam

        I would certainly want to avoid what you call Nimbyism.

  • “Labour needs to be campaigning for and designing a proper pattern of regional and local devolution for England”. The spirit is right but ‘devolution’ is a worrying word. What is wrong with ‘local and regional government’ ?

    • swatnan

      Whats wrong with modernising local govt?

      • MikeHomfray

        I think the term ‘modernisation’ has been totally discredited

    • PoundInYourPocket

      Devoltion (to me) suggests autonomy at a regional level. If the idea is that regions are allowed to keep and benefit from their own growth and prosperity, then haven’t we just exported Thatcherite indiviualism to each region as a local policy. Allowing wealthy regions to outgrow more deprived regions. Shouldn’t we aim to have a more re-distributive and coordinated development policy , rather than one that fosters inequality. Not sure why “devolution” has become the buzz word over the last few years, is it just the govt that want to shed even more responsibility ?

  • Theo Blackwell

    Excellent article – I hope this otherwise very worthwhile debate doesn’t follow the recent line from Mann/Danczuk and use ‘London’ as a lazy proxy for ‘Whitehall’ or the SW1 Bubble. London councils face some of the steepest cuts around while our residents face the high rents, childcare costs and travel on top of an already very high cost-of-living. The average London borough ranges in size from the equivalent of a Hull to a Sunderland and yet when people talk of decentralisation, it’s never to give London boroughs equivalent power – fairness dictates that this should be so.

    Labour experimented with Total Place but never got it right, because Whitehall departments didn’t want to surrender control and there was a lack of Ministerial will. In order to tackle inequality better by promoting jobs and growth all councils in England need to have more of a say over all local public spending committed by Whitehall to our area, like the NHS, Jobcentre Plus and Benefits.

    • ColinAdkins

      John (Mann) used to be a Lambeth councillor!
      Agree with your main arguments.
      Have concerns about healthcare. There needs to be a shift from acute settings to the community which in its own way is form of subsidiarity in delivery at least.
      Unfortunately most local politicians I have heard speak on the NHS would think it stands for the National Hospital Service.
      Further each geographical entity will have aspirations for an all singing DGH delivering specialist care or at the very least keep hold of what they currently have. Many areas of specialist care are best delivered in regional centres. I fear having convinced the local poltician of this the system is then faced with an argument where any centre is located.

  • MikeHomfray

    The main issue is finance. Are we really prepared to make a definitive shift in distribution of support away from the shires and towards areas with greater need? If so, this will work, if not, it just cements institutionalised inequality

  • gunnerbear

    “He has shown utter contempt for councillors themselves with petty attacks such as removing their pension rights”

    Why on earth should Councillors have pension rights? Giving ’em access to the LGPS simply binds ’em even closer to the Council they are supposed to be holding to account.

    Being a Councillor isn’t supposed to be a full time job.

    • MikeHomfray

      That may have been true once, but since the shift to the cabinet and leader model, it would be difficult to carry out those roles and hold a job down unless you have a very tolerant employer. The reason a lot of councillors don’t work in a conventional 9-5 job is because their employers made it so difficult for them to have the time off

      • gunnerbear

        If a Councillor doesn’t like the workload or allowances they can soon step down. There is no way a Councillor should get a taxpayer funded pension.

        • MikeHomfray

          Unrealistic. If you want to attract people who are prepared to put their own career on hold to become a councillor (and that is what happens in reality) then you have to make it realistic for them to do so

          • gunnerbear

            The local council leader in my area gets just short of £30K from the public purse in assorted allowances and expenses for their role as leader of the Council.

            There is no way any Councillor should be getting access to pensions on top of that.

            To put that £30K in context, the average take home pay in the area is about £22K.

      • PoundInYourPocket

        I think as an employee you have a statutory right to time off (unpaid) when performing a public duty such as being a councillor, and at present most meetings are late aft / early evening so it shouldn’t (in theory) be a problem. Although some employers could be awkward I know that others like the idea of being able to say that a member of staff is a councillor; as it reflects well on the company.

        • gunnerbear

          “I know that others like the idea of being able to say that a member of staff is a councillor; as it reflects well on the company.”


    • JoeDM

      Being on the local council is simple public service, nothing more. They should not get a penny for it.

      • gunnerbear

        They should get expenses but that’s it. No pensions.

      • MikeHomfray

        How do you propose people could afford to do it, then, if they have a full time, low paid job?
        They wouldn’t be able to unless they had another source of income so you would end up with very few people being able to take up the responsibility

  • Steve38

    What is always missing from discussions on devolution of power is that the empowerment of local councils, regions or whatever unit of democracy is chosen will mean the lessening of power of the centre. So devolution implies reform of the House of Commons. Fewer MPs. Will the Labour party take on that task?

  • Edward Carlsson Browne

    I’m all for regional devolution, but the scheme you’ve put forward just won’t work. If we’re going all unitary, that doesn’t mean every district council gets to run its own affairs. Many of them (Castle Point very definitely included) are going to be too small to run services efficiently, even if it wasn’t for the fact that issues like transport require decisions to be made over a much wider area.

    In many cases, it’s going to mean power moving away from the districts and further away from local communities. Where I’m the PPC in north Essex, I don’t think voters in Harwich would be any happier about their council being run from Colchester than they are about it being run from Chelmsford. I think your solutions show too much of a desire to believe that the model that works for London will work everywhere. That just isn’t so.

  • PoundInYourPocket

    You seem to forget that many local authorities (including Labour ones) are still “rotton boroughs”. Your proposals are predicated on the view that local governance and democracy is somehow superior to that at a national level. I’m sure that’s the case if you compare best-practice LA’s with Westminster, but it doesn’t apply to others (eg Rotherham, Hartlepool etc) where the LA is so unpopular and dysfunctional that UKIP and Independents are ousting Labour councillors. Local governance can be apallingly bad as we all know, being characterised by the cronyism and corruption that thrives when people are disengaged from the democratic process. At best 40% of the electorate vote, and at best only a few hundred are actively involved in scrutinising what the LA and councillors do. The quality of local councillors, their integrity and purpose is also an area for concern as there are no formal requirements or tests for candidates. If you’re pally with the local party secratary and don’t insult too many voters, you’re in. There are some excellent councillors as well as some of the most obnnoxious, arrogant and corrupt specemins imaginable. Why has governance become more centralised over the last 30 years ? Exactly as a response to these issues I’ve just outlined. As a response to the “rotten boroughs”. LA’s are run by highly qualfied and experienced professionals to meet centrally set targets. By and large the system works as it minimises the disruption and iniquities that part-time party hacks introduce. Professionalism rather than pseudo-democracy. I’m not arguing against democracy – although it has it’s downside – just cautioning that you can’t devolve power back to councillor controlled regions without first improving the quality of local councillors, the level of local accountability, scrutiny and democratic engagement. Devolution is not some cure-all. It will just empower a cabal of party hacks that go boozing with the local secretary.

    • Steve38

      ‘Why has governance become more centralised over the last 30 years ? Exactly as a response to these issues’

      That is probably cart before horse. Turn out in local elections is so low because voters quite rightly recognise that it is not worth the bother. Local authorities have so little power they are hardly worth voting for. Abstention is a perfectly rational choice.

      Secondly, if the quality of local councillors is low it is for the same reason. Better candidates have gone elsewhere. Local government in its present state is only suitable for time servers.

      So devolution will have two beneficial effects. It will increase turn out and engagement as local government will have real power and so be worth a vote. Secondly, as there will be the possibility of exercising authority then better candidates will be attracted to serve.

      • PoundInYourPocket

        I disagree, I don’t think devolution will somehow attract better candidates or increase voter participation. These are trends in society that I don’t think will easily be turned around. The issue of elected mayors was a huge issue in terms of local governance, but turnouts were dire. What would the issue need to be to pull the voters in. But it’s not just pulling the voters in on election day it’s how do you interest and engage them so that elections have legitimacy ? I don’t think you can, which is why we have professionally run councills with a mandate from central govt. But if you have a way of increasing voter interest and participation I’d be interested to hear. It only seems possible to get high participation in the short term in response to a specific issue, such as a hospital closure or power station plans etc. But long term sustained engagement ? Without that devolution is passing power to the effectively unaccountable. Perhaps I’ve missed the point on the recent fad for “devolution” , happy to be put right.

        • Steve38

          ‘The issue of elected mayors was a huge issue in terms of local governance, but turnouts were dire.’

          Turn out was quite rightly low as nothing was on offer. Elected mayors, as we know to our cost in Salford, have no more power than the previous leader of the council. It was a non-offer, the electorate recognised that and didn’t bother to turn out.

          ‘ What would the issue need to be to pull the voters in ?’

          As you suggest, voters turn out when something matters. Give local authorities real power voters will see that and turn out to exercise their accountability and vote.

          ‘Without that devolution is passing power to the effectively unaccountable.’

          Just wrong. If local councils have effective power they are answerable to voters. Accountable plain and simple just the same as MPs.

    • gunnerbear

      A tour-de-force… notch. Brilliant analysis.

    • MikeHomfray

      Problem is partially that local parties can end up selecting clones of themselves and people they feel comfortable with as candidates in the safest seats – not necessarily those with most ability
      But also that if you are going to be a councillor these days, you may as well kiss goodbye to any career advancement unless you have the sort of job where being a councillor is seen to be an advantage – London councils are full of policy wonks in consequence. Outside London a lot of councillors find that they have to forego advancement in their career, hence the need for financial recompense. If you are on the cabinet it is difficult to fit in a paid job at all unless your employer is very tolerant

      • PoundInYourPocket

        At best 40% of the electorate, with little understanding of what the LA do, vote on either a tribal or national basis for a local councillor they’ve never met and who was selected by a few local party oficials with no clear manifesto. This is the broad reality of local “democracy” as far as I know it. Of course it doesn’t preclude local councillors, almost by chance, being highly competent and effective but it certainly doesn’t guarantee it either. This is what concerns me as the fad for devolution takes hold. Devolve more power to this dysfunctional structure ?

  • David Lindsay

    The loyally Labour old coal and steel belts of County Durham, South Yorkshire, Nottinghamshire and Derbyshire are among the places that will need to be convinced that our, as often as not Conservative or Lib Dem, urban neighbours quite deserved all of this.

    At the very least, we are not having the powers of our own local authorities transferred to them. In fact, since we are fairly populous, we may reasonably demand that whatever they got, then so should we. At least that money and those powers would always be under the control of members of Ed Miliband’s own party.

  • Steve Stubbs

    “I am agnostic about whether such assemblies should be directly elected
    or elected indirectly by and from the Councillors in their region.” says the author.

    Well I am not. We do not need another gravy train. If they happen they should be composed of nominated existing Councillors from the component parts, who are directly accountable to their electorate and can be replaced / unelected / whatever. But yet more snouts in the trough is unacceptable.

    • gunnerbear

      “When my local council polled residents on their spending preferences the results were frannkly disturbing.”

      Which is what they turn into as the ‘old mates’ help out other ‘old mates’.

    • MikeHomfray

      That will mean more work for the councillors concerned. I think that some of you are living in a fantasy world where things can be run by enthusiastic unpaid amateurs

      • gunnerbear

        ” I think that some of you are living in a fantasy world where things can be run by enthusiastic unpaid amateurs”

        That’s pretty much how the most successful empire the world has ever seen was built and run. Surely it can’t be that difficult to run the Council s**t-houses and mend the roads.

  • DoctorFranklin

    The difficulty with local government is that it does so much and so much of its income is from central government. Historically, it was at the point where local government both expanded its activities and became predominantly centrally funded, that people lost interest and the quality of people standing for election as councillors declined. Clearly there was a need for a professional local civil service and a system for accountability, if councils were to manage education, social services and housing as well as planning, roads, street lights, waste management, parks, community facilities and economic regeneration. The trouble has been that local accountability has always been weak, because people don’t know what it should mean and neither central government nor local government officials actually want it.

    My feeling is that the answer is to explore the scope for devolving powers and responsibilities to community level. This is not easy and would very much depend on the enthusiasm of local people. The aim should be to enable community councils to develop as independent community development organisations that build a community level capacity to address the needs and aspirations of their locality. This would involve the whole range of activities and methods used by community development organisations, including engaging volunteers, developing community assets and community enterprises and taking on the delivery of services currently provided by higher level councils, when they want to and when they have the capacity to do so. The devolution of powers, responsibilities and associated money would be governed by a subsidiarity principal for which evidence of capacity and community consent would be required. The role of the higher tier council would be to support and facilitate this process.

    The desired outcomes of this process would be diverse, but essentially, by enabling people to be more involved in how the place where they live and or work can be responsive to local needs and aspirations, a more responsible attitude would evolve, with people appreciating the necessary compromises associated with change and development, but with the power to mitigate the least desirable outcomes. If successful, community councils could then elect representatives to hold higher tier councils to account. Unlike the elected members of higher tier councils, these representatives would not sit on governing committees, but would have the power to form something akin to select committees that could investigate areas of concern and produce reports. This development of accountability to communities, together with a reduced involvement with community level service provision would actually empower the higher tier councils and pave the way for a greater devolution of powers from central government. This might involve higher tier councils merging with neighbouring councils for the provision of some services, but not for others. The result would be messy and piecemeal, but it would also be realistic, flexible and accountable, all things that central government doesn’t do well.

    • PoundInYourPocket

      Interesting ideas, could you point me towards any pilot schemes or initiatives to get a better idea of how this might work in practice ?

      • DoctorFranklin

        As far as I am aware, the initiatives in the direction I outline are piecemeal. Some town and community councils have engaged community development workers (e.g. Llanelli and Penarth in South Wales). Others have teamed up with neighbouring community councils to bid for contracts from the unitary authority to do maintenance (e.g. Bala in Gwynedd). In the 1980’s Bangor in North Wales tried to develop assets to provide income to extend services. Overall though as far as I can see the town and community councils are too emasculated to do anything and have to be very cautious. However in some places community development trusts have taken on regeneration work, sometimes developing assets worth many millions and with the income to provide local services. In Royston, north of Glasgow, the community housing association has taken on this role. There is a lot of evidence to suggest that engaged communities are better able to address their own problems, but what we no longer see is this happening within the framework of council bodies. Unitary councils tend to be very jealous of their power and only devolve where they are failing badly or where the community is rich and powerful. This should be addressed for the reasons I have already outlined.


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