7 August 2017
Local government is in trouble. Starved of funding by central government, yet given more responsibilities, it has become inward looking and defensive. Whether it’s KCC Councillors awarding themselves a 15% increase in allowances (and we know not all voted for it) or development proposals that ignore local opinion, there is a disconnect between local authorities and the people they are meant to serve.
I don’t share the view that local politicians are “only in it for themselves.” I’m a parish councillor, I know the hard work that is done at that level and I’m sure this is true at Borough/District and County authorities too. But when over 50 people turn up at a meeting of Tonbridge & Malling Borough Council expecting to hear a debate on the sale of public open space and instead discussion is closed down by a narrow procedural motion, then something has clearly gone wrong.
Part of the problem of course is an electoral system that does not properly represent the spectrum of views across the community. This leads to “one-party rule” and can breed complacency.
The phased withdrawal of the Revenue Support Grant (which funded almost 80% of council expenditure in 2010) over the next few years will leave local authorities reliant on the Council Tax and Business Rates. This means that rather than funding local government according to need across the country (as is done with national services) each area will have to raise finance from its own tax base.
This puts pressure on local authorities to approve, often controversial, developments which will generate rates income. Some, including Tonbridge & Malling, are selling off public assets, including open space, to plug a hole in revenue budgets - a trick that can only be done once. Local decision making can be “captured” by commercial interests, particularly as authorities opt out of providing facilities and services themselves.
Despite the cutbacks, local authorities still control big budgets - they need qualified, experienced and professional staff. Local authority workers should expect terms and conditions no less favourable than the private sector. But many councils have moved too far in aping the commercial sector, using the confidentiality provisions of the Local Government Act 1972 to exclude matters of interest to the community from public scrutiny.
A significant reason for the disconnect between voters, councillors and decisions made by local councils is the “leader and cabinet” system, forced on authorities by central government. Tonbridge & Malling has 54 elected councillors, representing 24 wards but just 6 (all Conservative) are members of the Cabinet which is “responsible for most day to day decisions”. All the “ordinary” councillor can really do is make recommendations. Fortunately, under the Localism Act 2011, authorities can return to traditional decision-making by committees - a move the Green Party supports.
So what can be done? Perhaps the most important action is for us all to hold our councillors and our councils to account. This means (unfortunately) reading agendas, minutes and reports, going to meetings, asking questions and making our views known, directly and through campaigning. Some officials and politicians will resent more public scrutiny but I believe most will welcome it - we are, after all, why they are there!
This piece by Richard Byatt first appeared in the Times of Tonbridge 26th July 2017
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