Tough Luck or Rough Justice?

John W. Raine

Why don’t more motorists who are unsuccessful in challenging Council-Imposed Penalty Charge Notices (PCNs) take their cases further to independent adjudication at the Traffic Penalty Tribunal?

Probably most readers of the paragraphs below will, at some time or other, have had the misfortune to incur a Penalty Charge Notice (PCN) for a parking or a ‘moving traffic’ contravention (e.g. driving in a bus lane); and will have experienced the feelings of frustration and self-reproach (at being caught out) and exasperation, and not a little anger, (at the seeming intransigence of the council in persisting in enforcing the penalty charge, despite the written explanations and apologies proffered in mitigation).

Continue reading

The PwC report on Tower Hamlets highlights fundamental tensions in local democracy, not always thought through clearly in new mayoral systems

Michael Keith

Competent bureaucrats commonly believe they protect the public interest by delivering transparent decision making in public institutions. This is commendable. Politicians normally believe that they are elected to carry out the wishes of their voters. This is forgivable. But these imperatives rub against each other when politicians try reshaping things in an image they prefer and the bureaucrat wants to preserve an order they recognize. This is difficult.

This tension is not new. Recent events in the east end of London exemplify an old problem. Max Weber’s thoughtful and commonly misunderstood discussion identifies this tension as one of the diagnostic features of bureaucracy. The bureau is in and of itself without politics. In a vocabulary anachronistic in its use and counterintuitive in its usage it might even be argued that Weber suggested bureaucracy was fundamentally anti-political.  The bureaucrat could serve the Chinese despot, the papal machine or the liberal democratic reforming state equally well. But at its best s/he personified a particular kind of stasis, a performative form of repetition without difference.

The bureau reproduces a specific social, moral and political order; dispassionately and without fear or favour or individual exception. This predictable repetition is at the heart of the bureau’s strengths.  At its best it makes visible transparent process. But our conception of the ‘political’ is at heart about change, the juxtaposition of one moral order against another. The politician – whether or not democratically elected – is for Weber a personification of the will to advance a preferred moral order and social settlement. A ‘conservative’ appeals to a particular set of pre-existing values threatened by social change, an alternative politics actively promotes a new moral order against an old one. In cities of flux, characterized by high levels of demographic ‘churn’, migrant urbanisms and processes of regeneration and gentrification the social order is constantly on the move, generating particular challenges for the bureau.

Translated into local government, the most conscientious political actors become engaged in representative democracy for a reason. Councillors normally want to change things in the ward and the local authority they represent. They identify needs, community organisations they believe are doing good things unnoticed, campaigns they want to champion. Such interests sometimes can be advanced through the bureaucracy. But such interests at other times have to be championed against the bureaucracy. Domestic violence only becomes an ‘object’ of local governmental gaze when community organisations campaign for it to be recognized. The consequences of an ageing population with multiple challenges are only recognized by welfare departments after a lot of knocking on doors at city hall. And in multicultural settings both entrenched forms of systemic racial disadvantage and a politics of recognition of cultural difference depend on changing the local state to recognize properly the different needs of cultural groups and evolving and at times banal demographics.

In my own experience the mums’ clubs based in certain locations and the provision for the elderly that once appealed effectively to a past East End tradition of gathering, music and alcohol based conviviality worked accidentally to exclude those who did not gather in pubs, did not socialize around a cup of tea and a cigarette after dropping the children at school. So the bureau only recognizes and changes with pressure. Multicultural realities challenge and change the bureau, belatedly some times, proactively when politcians advance in good faith an understanding of the complexities of new social formations through the architecture of city hall. But such change is never without friction.

Such tensions can be constructive. But in British mayoral systems we are unsure what the proper checks and balances should be. In Tower Hamlets when the will of a people so diverse, so rich and poor, so much a mix of different cultures is personified by one man, the challenges are particularly acute. Price Waterhouse Coopers last week reported to Secretary of State Eric Pickles a situation that led the Secretary of State to suggest that the report “paints a deeply concerning picture of obfuscation, denial, secrecy, the breakdown of democratic scrutiny and accountability, and a culture of cronyism risking the corrupt spending of public funds.”.

The report highlighted that in Tower Hamlets the three most senior bureaucrats are all on temporary contracts.  The boss (head of paid service), principal lawyer (monitoring officer) and head of finance (section 151 officer) are insecure. They depend on political whim for their pay cheque.  The checks and balances for a mayor in one of the most socially polarized parts of Britain are diminished. As PWC suggest and illustrate by one example after another the result in today’s east end is potentially catastrophic. This is why we need to think carefully how checks and balances for elected mayors should work, in the east end and elsewhere.

On the BBC Radio 4 Today programme on 13th November (and in other media) reports on recent events in Tower Hamlets have focused on whether or not there has been criminal behavior reported by PWC. Former Mayor of London Ken Livingstone and former MP for Bethnal Green and Bow George Galloway, both supporting Mayor Lutfur Rahman, curiously mirrored the framing of BBC journalist Zoe Conway in focusing on the issue of criminality and fraud. But this is a chimera. If the report is judged by whether criminality or fraud is eventually proven, if the mayoralty is judged by convictions in court, misses the point. The true message of the PWC report and the lesson for putative mayoral innovations, in Tower Hamlets, in Manchester and elsewhere is that if the proper checks and balances on deliberative democracy are not in place then the result is dysfunctional, opaque and – most importantly – to the detriment of democracy and the disadvantage of local people.

It is why most people will welcome the potential role of three commissioners in east London that might mitigate the questionable deployment of democratically elected but executively absolute power in today’s Tower Hamlets.

This post was originally published by Democratic Audit.

keithProfessor Michael Keith is the Director of COMPAS at the University of Oxford. He also has s a personal chair in the School of Anthropology at the University of Oxford. He is working on projects in the Labour Markets,Citizenship and Belonging, Urban Change and Settlement, and Welfare clusters. He was previously a politician in the East End of London, and has served as the Leader of Tower Hamlets Council.

Cinderella has been at the ball for more than a century and no one has noticed her!

Ian Briggs

Local government has struggled with the concept of localism for far longer than most of us might think. It has not just been the clarion call of localism from the Coalition Government since 2010 and the subsequence Localism Act that posed some pretty serious questions about the structure of our local democratic processes. The issue of connectivity between the citizen and the ‘agent of the state’ has been under academic scrutiny for a long time.

It might come as a surprise that for many town and parish councils, 2014 marks a century or more of continuous (very) local government but this seems to be passing many by. Quite a few are in fact older and came into being after the fondly remembered 1894 Local Government Act. For many town and parish councils this was a formality that was based on the feudal system from as early as the 8th century, creating local administrative units that, it could be argued, present one of the longest histories of a system of local administration to be found anywhere in the world.

So Cinderella has been amongst us for a while now, quietly getting on with the allotments, rubbish bins and dog poo; but as she has been kept so far below stairs, few of us have ever really noticed her presence.

Indeed, today it is not what we know about town and parish councils that is interesting but (with respect to Donald Rumsfeld and his known unknowns) it is perhaps what we don’t know that is interesting and might be a matter of some concern to those of us who take our local democracy seriously.

So can anyone out there answer the following questions?

  1. How many town and parish councils are there and how many are active?

There is data which suggests that we have quite a few in England and Wales – only a few in Wales. Looking at the data from the National Audit Office we can see that the gross precept levied by town and parish councils is around £400m, not an inconsiderable sum. These data are aggregated from what higher tier billing councils levy on communities, but this total hides the fact that a proportion of local councils below the higher tier are moribund and some act in a somewhat unofficial capacity. We also don’t know the range of budgets across local council size and scope. Rather worrying as no real research has been undertaken in this area since 1981!

  1. How many town and parish councillors do we have?

Again, it is near impossible to arrive at anything like an accurate figure. We know that in some cases we have data from where elections take place but many town and parish councillors enter office without facing an election. Uncontested elections are often a feature of government at this level and it is worth reflecting that even though those who do sit on such councils are exposed to the same level of legal responsibility as those who are elected to principal councils, many sneak through without facing the ballot box.

There is also some slightly worrying anecdotal evidence that some well-meaning local citizens sit alongside parish and town councillors as they have local knowledge and enthusiasm for local issues, seemingly all but formal parish and town councillors. But it might be best not to dwell too much on this. To complicate matters further we might be surprised to find that sitting on our local town or parish council are formally elected councillors from higher tier councils and indeed in some parts of the country ‘triple hatted’ councillors can be found – sitting on the county, district and paris council. Great if you have the energy and commitment to do so, but there are instances where they could be representing different political parties or more usually be politically aligned and supported at one level and by independent at another.

  1. How do town and parish councils set, agree and monitor priorities for spending?

Good question – as successive approaches to monitoring and controlling the spending mechanisms for local government have come and gone in recent years, Cinderella has managed to escape much in the way of control mechanisms for her role as the most local form of democratic unit. Thankfully most town and parish councils are working to some kind of plan and although the purse strings are tighter than perhaps they have ever been, most town and parish councils are keeping the wolf from the door – just.

A key responsibility of all town and parish councils is to hold an annual parish meeting. The intention here is to engage the local community in such a way as to set the agenda for the forthcoming financial year and help the parish council to focus on the priorities that local communities wish to see addressed. In some case this clearly works well, but again we have no global data or broad understanding of how this works. In some places where higher tier or principal councils are well engaged with this process it does have some meaning and purpose, but many parish councils often find that only a handful of people turn up, sometimes out of a sense of duty or even as an opportunity to tell the parish council how poorly the NHS is run or their objection to some foreign policy activity that central government is undertaking (and don’t laugh, as the anecdotal evidence strongly supports this).

  1. What do higher tier and principal councils actually think about town and parish councils?

Another question that is near impossible to answer beyond the clear frustration that many seem to feel about their mere existence. In fairness, a growing number of county and district councils are coming around to thinking that better connectivity with parish councils is an essential way forward. As councils are rethinking where their assets lie they find that where parishes has worked hard to maintain local open spaces, play areas and other facilities they can play a really significant role in supporting policies in healthy lifestyles, wellbeing and even education.

  1. What capacity do town and parish councils have to deal with an expanding agenda and increasing levels of public expectation?

Now perhaps this is the killer question. Are we seeing a forced interdependence forming between principal councils and town and parish councils or is there real mileage in rethinking Cinderella and giving her a makeover? To characterise all parish councils as amateurish is really to do them a disservice and is patently wrong. NALC, the National Association of Local Councils, may not be the most prominent of bodies but in recent years it has done sterling work in supporting town and parish councils through changing times, and has done more than most appreciate in professionalising and lifting the status of the parish clerk from that of a part time administrator to one of a key professional who handles complexity and ensures that parish councillors can give their best.

Despite this, we can see that many parish councils are struggling to absorb a wide range of challenges – from playing their part in ensuring that large scale residential developments are in keeping with local needs and expectations to developing new forms of local services to fill gaps left by unavoidable reductions in services from county and district councils.

So where does this leave us? To ensure that we understand exactly what the new 21st century Cinderella will need to wear to the ball, we need to be clear about what the supporting research agenda should contain. This autumn NALC and INLOGOV, together with the University of Gloucestershire, will be inviting a number of key players together to begin to map out the gap of the last thirty years of Cinderella being locked below the stairs.

briggs

Ian Briggs is a Senior Fellow at INLOGOV, and sits on a rural Parish Council in Warwickshire. He has research interests in the development and assessment of leadership, performance coaching, organisational development and change, and the establishment of shared service provision.

Local democracy at the sharp end: diary from a Parish Council

Ian Briggs

It starts in the autumn of 2013. The Secretary of State knocks back the latest submission of the Core Strategy from the District Council – more homes needed please. Suddenly, the Parish Council becomes inundated with requests for meetings from developers – the story here being that this rural village has the postcode where houses change hands on the market the fastest for miles around, and for the highest possible price.

By November 2013, eight potential housing developments are highlighted and the community becomes ‘punch drunk’ with consultations for housing developments. Plans are submitted to the District Council but mysteriously they do not appear on the website.

Early January 2014, the Parish Council calls a community meeting to discuss development, the fact that HS2 Ltd are now proposing permanent road closures, and the Environmenet Agency is looking at proposals for an advanced form of ‘fracking’ – underground coal gasification for the area.

It is hardly surprising that those local residents present at the meeting are up in arms and demanding answers. Council Council member is present at meeting but rather quiet and makes sharp exit at the close. No District Ward councillor present and no apologies sent.

The following morning, the members of the Parish Council are given sight of resignation letter from District Councillor.

Week two, January 2014. District Council meets to agree new proposed core strategy. Shock – areas within the Parish Council highlighted to absorb thousands of houses – sets out case that it is at the periphery of the District so should be little trouble – wonder why ward councillor resigns?

Still no sign on the District Council website of plans submitted by developers in December 2013. Then, find they have put them on the website but believe they relate to a totally different parish – oops!

Letter sent to the Leader of the District Council requesting urgent meeting – no acknowledgment, no reply after ten working days. Leader of Council is in London for extended period according to Council staff. Wonder what on earth he is up to and who he is talking to?

All of the above is a trust story. But the important issue here is that this is set against a backdrop of ‘localism’ – if the intention is to give greater powers to local communities then we need to look closely at the decision-making mechanisms that we have to work with. There are questions arising as to how we are failing to integrate decision-making across different levels of local democracy.

A fundamental  tenant of any democracy is being clear and open as to where decisions are made. If all this sounds as though it is an attack on the District Council in question, it is not meant to be so – the Council is in the same position as most others. It has made deep and significant cuts to its operations and is now faced with making decisions that are expensive in terms of time and associated managerial costs.

In amongst all of this are the public. They are open to persuasion from a local media that is keen to jump upon any news story that could sound as though the Council is failing, and given that event well educated and sensible members of the public are poorly informed of the mechanisms of local democratic decision-making, it is no wonder that they turn to the most available and accessible form of local representation – the Parish Council.

Next diary entries to start soon…..

briggs

Ian Briggs is a Senior Fellow at INLOGOV, and sits on a rural Parish Council in Warwickshire. He has research interests in the development and assessment of leadership, performance coaching, organisational development and change, and the establishment of shared service provision.

Bankruptcies, scofflaws and aldermen: differentiated by a common language

Chris Game

It must have happened to you. You come across a word for, as far as you’re aware, the first time in your life, you learn its meaning, and then read or hear it again in a quite different context just a few days later.

It’s possibly just one of those exaggerated coincidences – like the birthday paradox of needing only 23 people in a room to have better than even odds of two of them sharing a birthday. But, even if it is, my recent experience still struck me as worth sharing in a blog – especially as I rather like the word in question, and without too much contortion can give it a local government slant.

I’ve just returned from an academic conference in Chicago. The paper I presented was mainly about English local government finance, but part of it touched on the usage and meaning of words – in this case BANKRUPTCY; and no, that’s not the ‘new’ word I’ve just discovered!  I wanted to explain why English local authorities, no matter how financially stressed, would not be going bankrupt in the same way as Detroit and several other American cities have done over the past couple of years – and that Chicago itself conceivably could too, were the Illinois state constitution to permit it.

It’s true the B-word has entered UK local government discourse in recent months – in relation, as it happens, to what in population terms are our largest (Birmingham) and smallest (West Somerset) principal councils.  But here it’s used actually or effectively in quotation marks, signalling unusual usage, and indeed signalling is what the recourse to the B-word is mainly about: signalling – to these councils’ residents and taxpayers, but above all to government ministers – that they’re getting close to being unable to meet their legal obligations with the funding foreseeably available to them.

They are not signalling that, to take Chicago’s case, they have approaching $30 billion of unfunded pension liabilities, a now junk-approaching credit rating, and that they’ve managed to set a 2014 general budget with a shortfall of only $339 million. There are several ways in which municipal bankruptcy has a different meaning and different connotations this side of the pond, not least of which is that little clause in successive Local Government Acts requiring local authorities to set their council tax at a level that will balance the budget. US municipalities can and do set deficit budgets, some of them year after year.

Anyway, this bankruptcy stuff meant I was probably at least subconsciously on the lookout for particularly American words and usages – the two countries separated by a common language idea – when I happened upon SCOFFLAW. It’s not remotely a neologism, its meaning is quite easily guessable, and you may well be familiar with it yourself. But, until it crossed my path in three entirely different situations in the space of a few days, I wasn’t.

It originated in the Prohibition era, as a label for someone who literally scoffed at the law and illegally drank, sold or manufactured alcohol.  It’s since been extended to anyone who flouts any law, but it remains very much an Americanism. Indeed, it may be that its widespread usage is concentrated around the Chicago area, because my first sighting was the Scofflaw bar/restaurant in Logan Square, near to where I was staying in Lincoln Park.  Not, disappointingly, as edgy as it sounds. Unless there’s a local ordinance outlawing tractor seat barstools or menus containing exceptionally weird cocktails, chocolate chip cookies, and Brussels sprouts, the name must refer more to historic than present-day custom and practice.

There was no doubt, though, in my second encounter, a couple of days later. State Governor, Pat Quinn, was there on my TV, explaining his new law allowing the Illinois Tollway to post public lists naming and shaming the ‘Top Toll Scofflaws’ and the amount of fines and unpaid tolls owed by each violator.

It’s to such traffic law violations and similar comparatively minor offences that the scofflaw tag seems mainly applied nowadays – but clearly not exclusively.  For, immediately upon returning home, I heard a US diplomat explain on Radio 4’s The World Tonight how, if President Obama were to launch a military attack on Syria without Congressional and/or UN authorisation, it would not only constitute an impeachable offence, but “would bolster the already widely held view that America is a scofflaw nation that acts impetuously and unilaterally outside the framework of international law”. You can see his point: first you’re defying liquor laws, then evading traffic fines, and, before you know it, you’re attacking Syria.

Another word you hear much more of in Chicago City government than over here is perhaps more surprising: ALDERMAN – an office that, except for the City of London, we abolished in the 1970s. Chicago, however, is, one of several US cities that retains them and so, a little oddly, has a 50-member legislative city council comprising entirely elected aldermen (unlike ours, who were indirectly elected) – and that includes the 16 women, who presumably feel they have better things to do than argue about whether they should be alderwomen or even alderpersons.

They almost certainly do, for the contrast between the range of the actual and potential powers of Chicago aldermen and those of the 120 members of Birmingham City Council – with which Chicago is twinned – is hard to overstate. First, some numbers.  The US has nearly 39,000 ‘general purpose’ local governments, compared to the UK’s 434 principal local authorities – but its council memberships are much smaller. While Birmingham’s councillors represent wards with populations averaging 27,000, making them the largest in the country, Chicago’s aldermen represent districts of roughly 57,000, which are easily the smallest of any major US city. New York’s 51 city councillors represent an average of 165,000; Los Angeles’ 15 councillors over 250,000.

As large-scale representatives, but even more so as legislators, Chicago’s aldermen are far better financially compensated and administratively supported than our councillors: an average salary of around $115,000 (£74,000); a staffing budget of some $200,000, to employ typically a chief of staff, a couple of ward services staff, plus maybe a receptionist and a ‘scheduler’; and an additional general office budget of $75,000. And yes, there is a ‘Better Government Association’ that, like our TaxPayers’ Alliance, monitors all this and campaigns for the council to be cut by up to a half.

In truth, though, for aldermen to perform effectively even their legislative role, there would need to be more, rather than fewer, of them, with better, rather than reduced, support. Since Rahm Emanuel became mayor in May 2011, there have been around 30,000 measures introduced to the City Council. Even taking only the 2,000+ proposals flagged by the City Clerk’s office as ‘key’ legislation with a city-wide impact, aldermen lack the time, staff and expertise either to contribute significantly to the shaping of these measures or to scrutinise their implementation.

In practice, then, the mayor drives the city-wide agenda, largely unchallenged, but leaves the aldermen a similarly free rein – in fact, almost a free reign – over what happens in their wards. I noted recently in another blog how US municipalities’ zoning powers enabled them to limit the spread of payday loan stores in a way that many of our councils would like to. Well, in Chicago – far more, I believe, than in most cities – that power is exercised as a kind of unwritten aldermanic prerogative, with the alderman having almost a de facto veto power over any development project in their ward. Which pretty obviously, even without all their other powers, makes them both extremely influential, but also potentially extremely influenceable – and brings us back where we started, to scofflaws.

game

Chris Game 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.

Examining citizen participation: theory and practice

Laurens de Graaf

As a researcher of citizen participation I often discuss the functioning of local democracy with, among others, councillors, officers and citizens. These discussions are showing that knowledge of democratic theory in the field is not often very present.

Partly, this is understandable –if the field consisted of political scientists only, would democracy function at all? But it seems as if limited knowledge about democracy creates some practical problems. To put it more precisely, the perspective on democracy appears to depend on the slogan: ‘where you sit is where you stand’. Councillors see themselves as guardians of democracy, because they are (the only ones) elected, and are the representatives of the people. Officers don’t often understand the (seemingly) irrational decisions councillors make and see democracy often as frustrating for their policy process. Citizens are distant observers and only a few committed citizens are actually participating in democratic processes.

Councillors and officers have been aiming for (more) citizen participation since the 1990s. But what effect does citizen participation have on local democracy?

Citizen participation is vital to democracy

Citizen participation is usually seen as a vital aspect of democracy. Many theorists claim that citizen participation has positive effects on the quality of democracy. Theories of participatory democracy, deliberative democracy and social capital assert that citizen involvement has positive effects on democracy. It contributes to the inclusion of individual citizens in the policy process, it encourages civic skills and civic virtues, it leads to rational decisions based on public reasoning, and it increases the legitimacy of the process and outcome. These aspects are summarized in the table below.

Aspects of democracy Clarification Theoretical Perspective
Inclusion Allow individual voices to be heard (openness; diversity of opinions) Social capital & Deliberative democracy
Civic skills and virtues Civic skills (debating public issues, running a meeting) and civic virtues (public engagement and responsibility, feeling a public citizen, active participation in public life, reciprocity) Participatory democracy & Social capital
Deliberation Rational decisions based on public reasoning (exchange of arguments and shifts of preferences) Deliberative democracy
Legitimacy Support for process and outcome Participatory democracy

Table: Aspects of citizen participation and democracy; a framework for analysis

What councillors and officers are telling me is that they are not fully aware of all these different aspects, but like the overview. It helps them to reflect on democracy from different angels.

Local participatory policymaking in the Netherlands

My article – co-authored by Ank Michels – examines the probability of these claims for local participatory policymaking projects in two municipalities in the Netherlands. However, I think that the claims can also be applied to local democracy in the UK and other countries. The article focuses on the relations between citizens and government from a citizens’ perspective.

The findings show that the role of citizens in participatory projects is limited, serving mainly to provide information on the basis of which the government can then make decisions. Nevertheless, the article argues that citizen involvement has a number of positive effects on local democracy: not only do people consequently feel more responsibility for public matters, it increases public engagement, encourages people to listen to a diversity of opinions, and contributes to a higher degree of legitimacy of decisions. One negative effect is that not all relevant groups and interests are represented. The article concludes that for a healthy democracy at the local level, aspects of democratic citizenship are more important than having a direct say in decision-making.

Reflecting on the functioning of (your local) democracy can be a fruitful exercise once in a while. The framework of analysis that was presented here may help, among others, councillors, officers and citizens to understand democracy more broadly and empathise with (each) other’s perspectives and roles.

A full account of this research is available in my recent article with Ank Michels: ‘Examining Citizen Participation: Local Participatory Policy-making and Democracy’. Local Government Studies 36 (4), 477-491.

Laurens de Graaf is a lecturer at Tilburg School of Politics and Public Administration, Tilburg University, The Netherlands. In the last ten years he conducted theoretical and empirical research with regard to citizens participation and in a broader sense: the functioning of local democracy. He is often in the field moderating workshops and trainings for councillors, mayors, active citizens and (neighbourhood) professionals about their role and their potential added value to local democracy.