How To Revive Local Democracy

I always read Chris Morgan’s comments with interest. He generally knows what he’s talking about, he is usually fair, and he has had many years of experience of local government. Too bad he’s in the wrong party!

His recent analysis of councillor types was intriguing. Why should anyone want to put themselves forward to be a councillor? he asked, offering four distinct councillor types. I see myself as an ‘honest politico’ – working for the principles of the Liberal Democrats, listening to local people and working hard to achieve their desires. (I’m sure others will have their own opinions … )

Chris also called for the reinvigoration of all political parties, and no one could disagree with that. I have been wondering why our local democracy has been so jaded lately, and I offer a few tentative answers.

The issue of funding for Rochford has always been contentious. A series of changes in the way central government supports local authorities has led to Rochford losing out year after year. I remember being amazed at one point to find that the large number of commuters who live here had an adverse effect on our funding – as if the grass didn’t grow while Rayleigh residents were up in town! Or perhaps they thought people were taking their rubbish with them on the train to London for disposal!

Alongside this tightening of the purse strings came a series of new requirements for local councils, almost always unfunded. The overall effect has been extremely demoralising, both for councillors and for the officers who have to cope every day with increased demands and a lower budget.

The biggest problem we face is that government funding accounts for three-quarters of all local spending. This distorts local budgeting, and means that Whitehall has a disproportionate influence over local people’s priorities. When three out of every four pounds spent locally comes from the Treasury, raising local funds for local needs becomes alarmingly costly.

There are other drawbacks. When I became a head teacher, I found that I simply did not have the time and energy to devote to being a councillor. For some of my Liberal Democrat colleagues, being a councillor was pretty well a full-time job. That’s fine if you don’t have to work or bring up a family, but for most of us life is not so simple. These days, it seems that being a councillor is increasingly restricted to those who are retired or rich, or who don’t want to spend quite so much time with their families!

Chris Morgan rightly blames the opposition parties (Labour and Liberal Democrat) for not contesting so many seats at the local elections, and he offers some explanations from the Labour point of view.

The Liberal Democrats are undoubtedly going through a fallow period – though it is worth noting that we have twice as many councillors as the Tories had at their lowest point a few years ago. We have lost a number of good hard-working colleagues recently; some have died, some have moved away, some have simply found better ways to spend their time.

But Chris is right. It is not good enough to say to local people: ‘You have to have a Tory councillor because we can’t find anyone better.’ So how can we improve things?

The Liberal Democrats have a number of solutions, elements of which are at last being taken seriously by Labour and Tory politicians.

We have been running an ‘Axe the Tax’ campaign – to get rid of the ridiculously unfair council tax and replace it by local income tax. This would bring more local accountability and reduce the influence of central government on local affairs. More importantly, it would ask those better able to pay to make a larger contribution.

Council Tax has increased by 70% since Labour came to power, and the burden falls most heavily on those with lower incomes. The unfairness of Council Tax now means that the poorest 10% of people pay over 4 times more of their income in council tax than the richest 10%.

The Labour Government have made the bad situation they inherited from the Conservative Government even worse by their excessive reliance on ring-fencing, passporting and centrally-imposed targets and regulations.

Liberal Democrats are notoriously fond of voting reform – but I believe this is the single change which could really make a difference in local politics. A fair voting system, which ensured that if half the electorate wanted Liberal Democrat councillors, that’s what they’d get, would go a long way to restoring trust and accountability between the community and their representatives.

Proportional representation would make single party domination of councils far less likely and would strengthen opposition groups so that they were more able to challenge the ruling party. Electoral reform would also help to weed out corrupt practice and restore public confidence in the integrity of local government.

We would also like to see business rates returned to local authorities, which would give local businesses a greater stake in the local community.

All these measures would help to revitalise local democracy. The biggest change of all would be to see the removal of the dead hand of central government from our local affairs. No one knows Rochford District like the people who live here – it’s time to let us decide how we want to run our own lives.