Local Government and the Democratic Mandate: An Outdated Model?

Martin Stott

Local government could never be described as fashionable, yet today there is more talk than ever about the importance of ‘the local’.  However, this has converted into less, rather than more, freedom to act locally.  Whitehall’s desire to control is strong, as the current freeze on council tax rises demonstrates.  Local government hasn’t suffered as much at the hands of Whitehall as the NHS, where the current reorganisation follows countless previous ones – none of which have any clear rationale other than to undo the actions of a previous Minister and ‘prove’ that the new Minister is in charge.

The reason that local government has remained untouched by similar reorganisation is because it has one priceless asset that the NHS has never had.  An independent democratic mandate.

But that’s the rub.  Nothing drives Westminster politicians wilder than others challenging their supposedly democratic right to rule.  But local government did and still does.  Hence it’s abiding unpopularity in Whitehall and Westminster.  The excuses are many and varied – ‘inefficiency’ (when was democracy ever efficient?), ‘cost’ (let us try and recall local government equivalents of Whitehall’s IT and defence procurement fiascos, amongst others), ‘postcode lotteries’ (isn’t that a subjective term for local decision-making?), ‘poor quality of elected members (remind me which political parties put up these candidates?).

In the end though, the reality was summed up for me by a member of Tony Blair’s Cabinet, himself ex-local government, who when I asked him once over dinner how many local authorities he thought there should be in England, replied firmly “one”.

The government’s plan for fragmentation, competing foci of accountability and localism without democracy (‘localism lite’) has continued apace.  Examples of this include:

  • Police Commissioners.  Elections in November 2012 will confer a certain cloak of democratic legitimacy but with a few exceptions, their jurisdictions will have little connection to existing democratic jurisdictions.
  • The NHS.  It’s hard, even now, to know what the NHS reforms will really mean in practice, with local authorities having been ‘given’ responsibility for public health – as if environmental health, trading standards or waste management had nothing to do with the subject already.  And will GP Commissioners engage effectively with local authorities about the health of their populations when their accountability remains to Whitehall?
  • Schools.  Not long ago, local authorities were deliverers of education from 4-18, however this is now disappearing with the introduction of academies, foundation schools, free schools and the like.  The mantra is ‘freeing schools from local authority control’, but this means that the schools will have no direct democratic link with their localities.
  • The planning system.  The right of individual property owners to develop their land was nationalised under the 1947 Town and Country Planning Act.  The process of granting or refusing ‘planning permission’ was then delegated to local authorities.  Brick by brick, the Localism Act, and the Infrastructure Planning Commission and its successors have removed the foundations of democratic local determination.
  • Elected Mayors.  The argument for mayors is simple.  A single point of accountability for things that go wrong – or right – in a locality.  The problem is that giving a single person a lot of power can be a recipe for corruption, and doesn’t allow for the nuances, ambiguities and consensus-building that is so important in local democracy.

Despite all this, by and large, local government has risen to the challenges of the last two decades.  Gone are the command and control attitudes – the diverse ecology of local public service provision has made a new way of working essential and local government has found itself sharing responsibility rather than working alone.

There remains a distinct division of opinion in local government between the ‘local authority as service provider’ view and the ‘local authority as community leader and local voice’ perspective.  The two aren’t necessarily in conflict, but the rise of the customer has led to a view in some quarters that service provision is all.  High quality value for money public services are a very important part of what local government offers.  But if that was all it offered, why both with the democracy bit?

There are plenty of companies delivering high quality public services efficiently, but there is a gap in the market for local leadership, the championing of ‘place’, the focus for the expression of local democratic legitimacy.  Sadly the trend seems to be in the wrong direction as, rather than bolstering local government, its powers and responsibilities are being stripped.

Martin Stott was Head of Environment and Resources at Warwickshire County Council until the autumn of 2011, when he concluded a 25 year career in local government.  He has recently become an INLOGOV Associate.

Welcome, UKIP – the future’s bright, but do clear out those defeated councillors

Chris Game

One of the minor hypotheses in Chris Game’s general theory of local elections concerns the correlation between a party’s rating of its own current fortunes and the accuracy of its councillor listings on its national website.  In brief: the greater the optimism, the greater the accuracy.

So it saddens me to report that, however upbeat may be the headlines emerging from UKIP’s annual conference here in Birmingham Town Hall this weekend – the party’s proposed name and logo changes, defections of ‘Top Tories’, favourable opinion polls – its website managers, if not the party itself, are hedging their bets.

This year’s local elections weren’t great for the UK Independence Party, soon to be known officially simply as UKIP. They fielded more candidates than ever before, but that’s about as far as it got – and in London it didn’t get even that far. Some party apparatchik overlooked – or possibly was instructed to overlook – the small technicality of putting the party’s name on the mayoral candidate nomination form. So Lawrence Webb, selected by London UKIP members as their candidate, had to stand under the label ‘Fresh Choice for London’.

Whether, with some indication of his party affiliation, Webb would have mustered more than 2.1% of first preference votes we’ll never know, but I remember thinking he was perhaps missing a trick. Personally, I’d have tried to make the best of a bad job, used all six words permitted on the ballot paper, risked the ‘Vote for a veg’ barbs, and gone for ‘Webb’s Wonderful – Fresh Choice for London’.

The London Assembly elections were no better for UKIP, the party failing to regain the two seats it had lost four years earlier. Nationally too it made no net advance on its rather modest 27 elected members of principal councils.

In the West Midlands, Birmingham itself has never offered great encouragement, and this year was no exception, the highest UKIP vote being 4% in the Perry Barr ward. In the past, the Black Country boroughs have provided the party with at least a few seats, but the defeat in Dudley of Malcolm Davis – Lib Dem-turned-UKIP councillor and fierce opponent, along with the English Defence League, of the now jettisoned town centre ‘mega-mosque’ – ended even that modest representation.

Four months later, though, the UKIP website is still in denial, and likewise about Newcastle-under-Lyme, where its fall from grace has been even sharper.

In 2010 Newcastle, remarkably but genuinely, had the highest concentration of UKIP councillors in the country, with 23 at all levels from county to parish. It was also one of the 21 constituencies where in the General Election UKIP could claim to have deprived David Cameron of an overall majority – its 8.1% vote share exceeding Labour’s 4% majority over the Conservatives.

But that was then. In this May’s elections the last two of the five UKIP borough councillors lost their seats as Labour swept to power, and the fact that the national website still displays their pictures would normally strike me as the behaviour of a party that fears its best days may be behind it.

Which would be surprising, because they’re surely not – whether you look at current opinion polls or the electoral playing field over the coming months.

First, the polls. In the most recent, by YouGov for Wednesday’s Sun, ‘topline’ voting intention figures put Labour ahead with 43%, the Conservatives on 34%, and the Lib Dems and UKIP level on 8%.  Even as it stands, this was clearly good pre-conference news for UKIP, and dire news for the Lib Dems as they were assembling in Brighton. However, there are good reasons for supposing that, if anything, these figures understate UKIP’s true position.

YouGov, like almost all the leading polling companies, does not prompt respondents by specifically mentioning UKIP in its voting intention question: ‘If there were a general election tomorrow, which party would you vote for? Conservative, Labour, Liberal Democrat [in rotated order], some other party, would not vote, don’t know.’

Common sense and solid research both suggest that, if UKIP were mentioned by name, it would attract at least some additional support – as indeed would probably be true for the Greens, the BNP and the English Democrats.  One pollster does do this, Survation (a not terribly imaginative abbreviation of ‘surveying the nation’), currently pollster to The Mail on Sunday.

In that paper’s most recent poll, those respondents intending to vote in the next election put Labour on 36.6%, the Conservatives on 29.4%, the Lib Dems on 9.8% … and UKIP on 12.2%.

It’s a toss-up which of the two Coalition parties is the more spooked by such figures. Immediately, probably, it’s the Lib Dems, whose monthly poll ratings from 1997 to 2011 never once dropped below double figures, but are now starting to do so regularly.

Longer term, it must inevitably be the Conservatives who, even as early as the Corby by-election (probably in November), could find UKIP pushing them into third place in serious elections. And as the General Election approaches, they will need no reminding that, without winning a single seat, UKIP can still inflict major damage.

As for UKIP, almost all voting opportunities over the next 18 months, including those next year for the county councils, are just rehearsals for the elections they were born for: the European Parliament elections in June 2014, just 11 months before that General Election.

Able to focus fully on their anti-EU, anti-immigration programme, and aided for once by an electoral system that doesn’t discriminate against them, UKIP invariably do well in the Euros, not least in the West Midlands. In 2009 the region gave them their second best regional result: a 21% vote share (compared with 16.5% nationally) and two of their 13 Strasbourg seats – perhaps at least a minor reason why they’re honouring us this weekend with their annual shindig.

In addition to the cosmetic name change, the party is also abandoning its famous £ sign logo – about the most widely recognised party symbol around – on the grounds that the battle to save sterling from the euro is now indisputably won.  The new UKIP battle is already well underway, one that seems unlikely to last a full decade and could quite conceivably be won in 2014: top the Euro-polls and force the Government to concede a straight in-out EU referendum.

Chris is a Visiting Lecturer at INLOGOV interested in the politics of local government; local elections, electoral reform and other electoral behaviour; party politics; political  leadership and management; member-officer relations; central-local relations; use of consumer and opinion research in local government; the modernisation agenda and the implementation of executive local government.

Strawberry-Tasting Chief Exec Gets Top Civil Service Post

Chris Game

UK local authorities are among the largest in Europe, spending billions of pounds annually on hundreds of diverse services. Yet it is the fate of some to be associated in the public consciousness, almost solely and seemingly forever, with a single image.

My guess is that at this time each year, the conker season prompts recollections that it was Norwich City Council that cut down roadside horse chestnut trees because of the supposed risk of conkers falling injuriously on children and pedestrians. It never actually happened – the felling, that is; I’m not sure about the falling – and it’s now 11 years since it didn’t happen, but why let that ruin a good story.

Similarly, it’s 14 years since Winterval was cancelled, but I’d be surprised if you get much past the mid-November opening of the Frankfurt Market before you hear someone recall how Birmingham was the council that ‘abolished Christmas’.  It was a complete, and cynically propagated, myth – as even the propagators-in-chief, the Daily Mail, last year finally officially admitted – but it won’t go away.

Northamptonshire County Council’s a bit different, in that its abiding image – at least among those who give it any thought at all – is one that it, or more specifically its chief executive, positively sought. Yes, we’re talking ‘Taste the Strawberry’, and the reason for talking about it is that the former CE in question, Katherine Kerswell – aka the Strawberry Lady – has just got herself a flash new job in the Cabinet Office, as Director General for Civil Service Reform.

It’s an interesting appointment for several reasons. First, it comes at a time when the exodus of several women permanent secretaries was, and still is, threatening to leave Whitehall senior management maler and paler than it’s strugglingly become over the past few years.

Second, Kerswell will be working alongside Sir Bob Kerslake – ‘Two jobs Bob’ – who, when not being Permanent Secretary of the DCLG, moonlights as part-time Head of the Civil Service. Macho man though he is, he could use the extra pair of hands, for the Kerslake-Kerswell combo faces one of the trickier tasks around: implementing a Civil Service Reform Plan that aims to cut an already demoralised service by a quarter by 2015, while improving the policy making process and increasing accountability to Parliament. That both have made their names in local, rather than central, government might just prove advantageous – or just possibly not.

Kerswell’s senior management career kicked off in here in the West Midlands – as CE first of Redditch Borough Council, then for seven years of Solihull MBC. By the time she moved to Northamptonshire in 2007, she had already acquired a reputation as a strong advocate of customer service and transformational change, and she quickly concluded that both would need pushing in her new authority. Hence Taste the Strawberry.

In an early motivational address to the Council’s nearly 20,000 staff, she emphasised the importance of residents recognising that any and every council service they used was provided with their money and shared in common the Northamptonshire CC ‘brand’ – except that, instead using the nasty marketing jargon b-word, Kerswell coined her instantly famous metaphor:

“I want you to think about ‘Taste the Strawberry’ as a message, and that strawberry flavour will be the flavour that is Northamptonshire County Council.  Sounds a bit weird, but I hope I’ve got you interested, because we’ll develop what that flavour really is that we get across to all our customers.”

Some staff undoubtedly found it – and Kerswell herself – not only interesting, but positively inspirational, and certainly in some sections of the council it proved a useful prompt for thinking about and challenging the way in which services were designed and delivered.  Councillors, however, always slightly sniffy about officers usurping their role as the public face of the council, were generally less enthused, and as for the Great British Public, well, what do you think? 

The address went on to YouTube and quickly became one of the most popular ‘news and politics’ clips – long since withdrawn, sadly, though the key bit and Kerswell’s own explanation are still available in a mocking BBC news report

In a similar vein, BBC Radio Northampton’s ‘Drivetime Bard’, Martin Heath, was inspired to compose and perform a not entirely adulatory ‘Strawberry Song’:

“Some councils are like lions, proud guardians of our land.

Some see themselves as angels, always there to lend a hand.

Some are just like soldiers – their courage we salute.

But I see mine as a strawberry and that’s a kind of fruit.”

There were further verses of equal wit and sophistication, but ‘Strawberry Fields Forever’ it wasn’t.  Then along came, almost inevitably, Stephen Fry. In an edition of his Radio 4 programme, ‘Fry’s English Delight’, the ubiquitous broadcaster proceeded, contrary to the impression given by the relevant Google headline, not to bury Kerswell, but to praise her.

His theme was that banning words, even weird management-speak, is fruitless (sorry!), and he had no time for the LGA’s ever-growing list of words that councils should be barred from using. He was quite happy, therefore, to embrace not only strawberry flavouring, which I personally quite like – both in reality and metaphor – but also blue sky thinking, step change, synergies and the rest, which I mostly don’t.

Kerswell herself has never, as far as I know, expressed any regrets at all, even about the Strawberry Lady tag. It got her generally low-profile council talked about, inside and outside County Hall, and clearly did her personal career, already on a rising trajectory, no obvious harm.

Some of the criticism did get tied up with attacks on her nearly £200,000 salary, which, though lower than that of her predecessor, still made her one of the highest paid local government CEs in the country. But, to her credit, she proceeded to publish full details of both her salary and expenses on the council’s website, set out details of what she did to earn it, and argued – before Eric Pickles was in a position to require it – that her fellow senior officers should do the same.

In her new post, this won’t be necessary. Her £140,000 salary is already public knowledge.  It’s considerably less than she’s earned at any time since leaving Solihull, which might seem to imply that sorting out the civil service is a bit of a breeze, compared to transforming Northampton County Council.  I wonder.

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Chris is a Visiting Lecturer at INLOGOV interested in the politics of local government; local elections, electoral reform and other electoral behaviour; party politics; political  leadership and management; member-officer relations; central-local relations; use of consumer and opinion research in local government; the modernisation agenda and the implementation of executive local government.

Roaming Buffalos, High Speed Trains and Localism?

Ian Briggs

As the government seeks to develop measures that stimulate the economy through the relaxation of the local planning processes, should we stop for one moment and think about some pretty fundamental issues about the relationship that we, as citizens, have with the locality where we reside – issues that localism may be ignoring?

The predominant notion we have in the UK is that (with due respect to women) an ‘Englishman’s home is his castle’ – however, as the details of the 2011 Census are eagerly awaited we are aware that we have a society that is perhaps more geographically mobile than ever before – mobile through commuting to work or mobile though national or international migration. For most communities today, even those that have relatively fixed populations, the proportion of those who have been domiciled in one locality for more than one generation is shrinking. This means our emotional connectivity to place is changing – this is not to say that many localities have populations that don’t have a strong commitment to place. Rather, it implies that we see connectivity to place through economic factors more than any other. However, many communities have powerful and longstanding psychological commitments to the locality where they reside going back generations and generate fierce local loyalties that policy makers and politicians often find hard to recognise.

The concept of land ownership is not always recognised in other societies. Throughout the world there are examples of where the concept of ‘ownership’ is reversed – it is not the fact that the landowner actually has titled deed to the land where they reside but the land has ownership of the very people who reside upon it. This has been often misunderstood in places such as Australia, New Zealand and certainly parts of North America.  Where indigenous populations have been resettled there are numerous occasions where the sense of displacement is cited as the root cause for various social problems. The Native North American notion of the ‘Washee’ is not a catch all term for white North Europeans – it is a term better translated as a ‘trespasser’, as someone who this land does not recognise as within its own ownership.  This notion that the people belong to the land is more important than we have perhaps recognised – the sense of belonging to ‘place’- despite how challenging it may be to quantify or measure – is a key factor that local councillors have to account for, and a mistake that government at local and national level seem to continue to make when decisions are made that fundamentally impact upon communities.

People do have a sense of belonging to locality and this is now being demonstrated through the rather extensive and turgid consultation processes around HS2. As a resident who is impacted by this development I have been active in a number of local and regional meetings, where the debate is moving from the awareness of the economic advantages and disadvantages associated with building the railway to one of a strong sense of hurt caused by politicians’ failure to recognise the desire that many local people have to hand down the ‘belonging to the land’ from one generation to the next.

The sense of betrayal that many in the North American Native self governed communities feel is often characterised not by a sense of loss of entitlement to the land but that the land has something missing – it has lost its people and the arguments are less economic and more socially psychological and spiritual. The deprivation and social problems in many of the Native American self-governed communities is plain to see and has been overlooked for far too long by Washington.  It is only now that steps and measures are being taken that make better connectivity between these communities and the land they occupy. So, what relevance does this have for us in the UK? Perhaps, HS2 can be used as a litmus test and a broader set of parameters applied to considering its worthiness?

The tone of many of the public meetings and consultations around HS2 is starting to open this debate up – however strong the economic arguments are or are not as the case may be, the feelings of hurt and imposition by a government of a rail line is an issue that local councillors are going to be left to deal with for potentially generations to come. Government can perhaps be a ‘trespasser’ and impose things on the land and the people but where that strong link between place and people is broken other problems always seem to follow. If HS2 is to be completed then there could be major economic gains.  Whilst this is questionable to some it is indeed possible – the local building industry could be stimulated through a relaxation of local planning regulations – there could be a higher price to pay that may take time to emerge and leave us with many more problems to solve.

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Ian Briggs is a Senior Fellow at the Institute of Local Government Studies.  He has research interests in the development and assessment of leadership, performance coaching, organisational development and change, and the establishment of shared service provision.

Nothing to declare. A troubled time for parishes?

Philip Whiteman

Chaddesley Corbett Parish Council is an ordinary local council like many others but whether its councillors’ decision not to sign a declaration of Disclosable Pecuniary Interest sets it apart will be of interest.  However, one suspects that their decision is not unique when considering the uncertainty and discontent amongst many that the new standards regime for the local tier of government is not fit-for-purpose.  Chaddesley Corbett Parish Council and others will soon start providing both Monitoring Officers and the Government with an increasing headache on what to do next. 

The declaration is difficult enough for principal councils let alone back-water parishes with minimal service responsibilities or budgets.  This is shame when considering the values of probity and good behaviour in all tiers of government as promoted by the late Lord Nolan.  Whereas councillors were previously required to declare personal and prejudicial interests, this requirement has now been extended to their spouses.  In a small parish, this may present a whole raft of problems. Unlike principal councils where elected members represent only one part of their council’s geographical ward, parish councillors generally have a representative role covering the whole parish.  This increases the chance that on many matters of fact, the interest of their spouses will prohibit those councillors from fully discharging their duties or voting on local decisions.  In Chaddesley Corbett’s case, the councillors expressed a belief that the new the declaration is an invasion of privacy into family life. Given parish councillor’s sense of voluntary contribution to the ‘good of society’, the requirements set out by the new Act are more likely to alienate than engage an interest in high standards.

As an advocate of standards in public life and the need for legislation to govern councillor conduct, one has to support some form of regime but the new requirements are excessive and ill-considered. Councillors should have been required to sign a code of conduct but the declaration is excessive. It is a mystery why government, whose earlier intent was to totally remove any form of standards regime, should then introduce such burdensome regulations.  

Figures have not been produced on how much the investigation of infringements at the parish level cost but one can suspect that the cost may exceed that of the parish precept where complex cases are raised. We can liken the new regime to the multinational firm that employs an army of auditors and tiers of bureaucracy to govern its employee’s expense claims.  Sometimes it is cheaper to ignore an employee’s claim of a few pence too many and not to instigate a heavy handed investigation.  The transaction costs of instigating regimes and investigations can often outweigh the benefits.  After all, some parishes do little more than award an annual hedge cutting contract!

Dr Philip Whiteman is Editor of Local Government Studies