Sunday, 13 December 2009

Why Local Democracy has lost its way

With Strawberry Hall (Northamptonshire County Council to those who don't buy into the Chief Executives psychobabble ) planning cuts in expenditure of £100m over the next four years. And other local Councils at Borough/District level planning "service reductions" to match, local councillors including yours truly will be in for a busy time defending or opposing budget plans and finding alternative ways of delivering ever deteriorating public services.

So concerned is County Council leader Squire Jim Harker at the task ahead of him that he recently launched his own psychobabble based report to rival even his own chief executives tomes (she probably wrote it for him) In the report he declares that instead of slashing services to children the disabled and the elderly and removing funding from other departments and outside bodies like CAN, as well as scrapping county music service and meals on wheels, and taking away school to home transport he is simply "Helping you to help yourself" The report told us that we needed to "tackle the wicked decisions" and use "tough love" to help people understand that by delivering no services to them at all we are really doing them all a big favour by boosting their self reliance!

It reminds me of the excuses given to me years ago by over sadistic school teachers when they told me "This will hurt me a lot more than it does you Clarke" whilst trying to convince me that by whacking a bamboo cane across the palm of my hand repeatedly, that they were not abusing me, but simply "building my character"
Well it was B*llocks then and its B*llocks now, if people are going to do something that is clearly wrong, but to which they have convinced themselves because of their warped sense of social responsibility that there is a good reason for them doing it, then they should at least have the courage to admit to it rather than pretending its all for our own good.

Meanwhile over the road the Tory opposition on the Borough Council in Northampton will be fighting the cuts imposed on us in the Boroughs budget by the ruling Liberal Democrat Council, before many of the same Councillorsfrom all party's cross that same road over to George Row to change seats so that the Liberal Democrat opposition on the County Council can attack the Tory Administration for doing everything they had just said so unpalatable in the other place. Labour Councillors will of course stay silent in the knowledge that it is there governments national spending cuts that the other two party's are implementing under a veil of supposed local democratic rule

Its the politics of the madhouse, but at the end of the day will it make much difference what anyone says, whilst we have a Labour Government content on slashing public funding and an ever hopeful Tory Government in waiting, trying desperately to out cut them?

Local voters expect their local Councillors to be in control of local spending. not for it to be left to some Mandarin in Whitehall, and yet if they all really knew the whole truth on who really takes the decisions then I believe many would give up on local democracy all together.

A recent study by the "Total Place Programme" (more government money wasted on consultants) tells us that so much of our local decision making is now controlled and financed by Quango's and faceless unaccountable regional boards and local partnerships, and that of every £7,000 per person spent on local services such as health, education and care for the elderly, only £350 of that is controlled by local politicians!

Before you rush for your calculators that means that those you vote for at Borough and County Council elections control between them only 5% of the money spent on all services in the locality.

In addition all Councils of all colours have plans to further "delegate"the responsibility for ever increasing amounts of council decisions to their officers or at the very least to "Cabinet Members" upon their advice.

It is therefore no wonder that even the Local Government Association has now woken up to real concerns over the lack of control local people have over how money is spent in their area.

In a speech to a Total Place summit, David Parsons, chairman of the LGA Improvement Board, said: “It is absurd that people do not have a bigger say over how their taxes are spent in the area they live.

“During these tough times democratically elected councils have a vital role to play if people are to get the local services they demand and deserve.”

Preliminary findings revealed that in one area as many as 49 different organisations spend taxpayers’ money. These include the health service, the police, the probation service and benefits agencies.

A LGA poll carried out in September found that nearly two thirds of people (65%) think local councillors should make decisions about cuts to spending in their area. Just one in ten thinks MPs should make those decisions and fewer than three per cent would prefer officials in quangos to decide.

Our local governance has never been more toothless, I sometimes wonder myself why I bother to stand for election, the reason I do of course though is that whilst the quangos and boards and corporations are more than happy to spend your money, and spend increasing amounts of it on senior management posts and consultants, they have little appetite for representing the public or helping to resolve the problems they often cause to the populous they should serve.

So as individual councillors some of us at least continue to try and fight the good fight, and defend the rights of local voters and service users, but at least personally I no longer have to do so whilst being held back by a party political system which not only protects the above power grabbing agenda but in many cases actually supports it and proposes it.

Increasingly it will be Community Groups and Residents Councils and Service Users and Parents (as they did last week) who will take on the powers that be (and the powers that want to be) at the Town and County Halls but hopefully there will be increasing numbers of Independent Councillors around to lend them some support.

So bring on the budget season and let battle commence.


  1. Tony,
    Your efforts and comments in Northampton are of great interest and encouragement to people elsewhere. In Waltham Forest people are coming together to discuss putting up a slate of independent candidates to break the logjam of self-serving Councillors of all parties, and the even more 'political' officials who they tamely obey.
    We have just heard that in nearby Epping a BNP-held seat is now held by a rep from the local residents' association.
    In Havering (Romford) it seems that independents form the official opposition.
    There are straws in the wind everywhere that people are ready for a wholesale cleanup of our political system: our local MP Harry Cohen has been found to have been claiming £1,300 a year on cleaning products, but nothing will clean up his reputation.
    The four stars granted to Waltham Forest by use of insider contacts and presentational strategies under Loakes' leadership have been shown for the smoke and mirrors they always were, as investigation after investigation into missing funds hand in their reports.

  2. Thank you for your comments, they make the effort worthwhile,

    We are entering a new political era, and the more residents and local communities find out, then the more they will participate and the cleaner our politics will become.




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