It has been well publicised in the post-Election media coverage that it took 3.9million votes to elect a single UKIP candidate to parliament. The Green party saw 1.14million people putting a cross next to their name in return for the same number of MPs, while even the average number of votes required to secure the post for SNP candidates was something like 27,000.
Do you know how many votes it took to elect a local councillor in Eden District Council in Cumbria this year? Zero. In fact, it took the same number of votes to see 21 candidates elected to that particular local council. 21 ‘elected representative’ positions effectively without any elections being required.
Eden District Council should not of course be seen as the only ones facing this issue; up and down the country hundreds of seats in places large and small offered no form of options in local elections. It is expected that well over the previous high of 3% of the 9000 seats up for grabs went uncontested. Local councillors, whichever colour rosette they wore, simply had to put their names forward once more and they were able to continue in their role with no questions asked.
Simply put, this is scandalous.
Local councillors in many respects have far more in the way of a direct influence over local life than most MPs will ever have. They have control over practical issues such as waste collection, street repairs and lighting, as well as less seen but just as vital services including (but very much not limited to) social services, youth provision, health and social care, planning and local employment. They work with people and for people from the cradle to the grave, with their decisions impacting on local residents, organisations and businesses on a daily basis.
MPs on the other hand are more removed from these day to day decisions. They may set the overall strategic direction and provide a degree of funding to make some of these things happen, but in terms of regular impact the majority of them have very little for the average citizen.
This election saw 66.1 per cent of the electorate casting their votes in the general election, the highest number in 18 years. Two out of every three people cast a vote in the national; contrast this with voter numbers in 2012, when an average of just 31.3% of the electorate put a tick in the box to decide who their local representative was, assuming there was actually a choice to be made.
That the media focus solely on national issues can hardly be blamed; they are national institutions (international in most cases) so of course they are going to focus on national issues. However, there is such a clear divide between national and local coverage that of course voters are going to have little encouragement to find out about local candidates when the presidential style debates are dominating the headlines. The less they know about them, the less likely they are to see that there is an issue and potentially do something about it.
This is leaving the same people in the same posts, making the same decisions and having little in the way of appropriate challenge other than from perhaps a small number of local writers, reporters or activists, and that’s just not good enough.
Effective opposition is absolutely vital in a healthy democracy. Without it we risk small personal fiefdoms developing, where a small cabal of individuals holds sway over every local decision, acting with impunity and with no fear of reproach. Whether the opposition is in the right or not is in many respects irrelevant; the mere act of challenge goes towards ensuring that no short cuts are made, nor processes foregone for convenience’s sake.
An unelected individual rarely has any need for proving both competence and mandate. An incompetent or ineffective individual with opposition will be voted out of office should a viable alternative be in place; with no alternative they are able to continue as before, potentially making the same mistakes to the detriment of local people for years at a time.
Add to that the fact that they will not have to deliver what local people actually need, only their own impressions of what this might be, and you are left with an unhealthy system ripe for abuse. Usually a stock response to people who don’t like what their representative is doing is to simply reply “vote them out!”; when this option is removed, what further recourse is there?
Of course, there are a number of reasons why this situation has been allowed to arise, primarily (though not exclusively) the difficulty of finding interested and capable individuals to put themselves forward for elections. Too often the perceived glamour of parliament draws the politically interested to it like moths to a flame; none of them look towards the moonlight that is local government as it is deemed the lesser of the two roles.
Parties too are at fault. All too often decisions are made that if a seat or council control is unwinnable that they won’t bother to contest. Yes, this saves money which can perhaps be spent elsewhere, but at the same time it undermines the very fabric on which representative democracy is built upon. National parties simply must start taking local elections seriously if they are to actually be able to engage with and understand the hopes, fears, wants and needs of real people.
To address this two things must happen. Firstly, local elections need to introduce something called for often and loudly by many for a number of years: a ‘none of the above’ option. Whilst this wouldn’t introduce active challenge, it would certainly give voters the opportunity to remove those candidates who simply were not deemed up to the job. This would also give significant data to be analysed and assessed ahead of this rolling out to national and other elections.
Secondly, no party should be able to put forward a candidate for a parliamentary seat unless it also actively puts forward candidates for each of an area’s local elections. This is the only way to demonstrate that they are actually in touch with local people and able to understand what is needed to represent them. Of course not all councils should be run by one or other of the national parties – there are some excellent independent or local party councillors out there – but it does ensure that competition will always be in place.
This may go a long way to reconnecting party candidates to communities, as well as enabling local people to in return connect with them. It reinforces the importance of local democracy and puts the local level firmly back in place as the foundation upon which all other elective representation is based.
Despite a renewed level of interest and dialogue about national democracy, our system is threatened at its core; if we don’t act now, the gap between people and their representatives will continue to grow and we will never see the best that local democracy can offer in every locality.
It's taken a few days to sink in. Unlike several commentators who are now trying to claim they foresaw the Conservative majority in Parliament, I will admit to being surprised by the General Election results. The collapse of the LibDems and the rise of the SNP may have been more predictable, but even here the sheer size of the shift seems incredible. Labour's strategy seems to have imploded, and in the final reckoning the Conservatives' reputation for financial judiciousness won the day.
So what does this mean for the future of public services in the next five years and beyond?
Without their erstwhile partners the Lib Dems to temper some of the Tory proposals, those working in the sector may be expecting the worst. Certainly the preceding five years of austerity, public funding cuts & the dismissive rhetoric of prominent Tories will stoke the fears of many in local government.
The pledges made in the Conservatives' manifesto and during the election campaign raise as many questions as answers. The (in)famous £12bn in welfare cuts remain shrouded in mystery, but the potential for pain is clear. The future of social housing, already suffering from years of neglect, has been destabilised further by the election promise of the extension of right to buy. Even the devolution of powers to local areas is largely cloaked in the nebulous phrase "Northern Powerhouse".
This is a bugbear of mine, mainly for two reasons. Firstly, how exactly is the "North" being defined? There is no agreement what this term even means in Doncaster, never mind Downing Street. I heard an interviewee in Newcastle scoffing at the idea of a Mancunian hub for the Powerhouse, as that city was "in the south" as far as he was concerned. Westminster soundbites will not help the cause of subsidiarity. The second reason is that the focus on the "North", whilst politically astute during the campaign, side-lines huge swathes of the country where the appetite, potential & need for greater responsibility & accountability is just as valid as that of Manchester, West Yorkshire & beyond. I hope the business rates pilot scheme in Cambridgeshire is an indication of the broadening of this canvas.
And yet there are reasons for optimism. The appointment of Greg Clark as Communities Secretary indicates a continued emphasis on devolution and decentralisation, together with a more collegiate and constructive approach to Whitehall's relationship with local authorities. The Conservatives have thus far been much more open to asymmetric devolution proposals, and although the city-centric approach may continue to hold sway the Tory shires will no doubt be lobbying for their own deals. This suggests the fundamental shift in local accountability and autonomy dreamt of by many in local government may be within reach.
To make this possible, the pre-election momentum must not be wasted. The incoming government has an overflowing in tray, particularly with the Nationalist surge in Scotland and the perennial EU referendum issue for the Conservative Party. Missed opportunities at this stage may be lost forever. The DevoManc deal, Centre for Cities' excellent publications, the Key Cities manifesto, the Non-Met report, and many more - all of these documents, positions and offers have built a case for devolution of some kind.
Perhaps now is the time for a collective voice for local authorities of all types - metropolitan, district and county - to pull all of this together as a menu of options for central government. Much as the LGA's excellent "First 100 Days of the Next Government" has set out a range of proposals for radical change to help address the financial and systemic problems in local government, the devolution agenda requires a comprehensive, collective voice. This may result in a loss of sovereignty for some, and may require a fundamental reassessment of how the public, private and voluntary sectors work together in future to focus on local priorities.
But place based budgets, financial autonomy, early intervention for complex issues, innovative service design: all these & more are up for grabs. The opportunity to create a vibrant, sustainable future for local government is there to be grasped; the sector must seize its chance.
Rob Foster works as a head of policy in local government and is passionate about better futures for public services. Follow him on twitter @futuresinfinite and his regular blog is published at futuresinfinite.blogspot.co.uk
It’s a funny thing, change and loss. Sometimes (as the song says) you don’t know what you’ve got till it’s gone, whilst at other times change can be met with more relief than a cold beer at the end of a long, hot summers day. It’s between these two points that emotions swing when the DCLG career of Rt Hon Eric Pickles MP is reflected upon.
Just a few short days after the Conservative party won a small majority in Parliament, David Cameron set about completing his grand reshuffle of seats and positions great and powerful. Among these was the announcement that Eric Pickles would be moved away from his position (be)heading the Department for Communities and Local Government to be replaced by Greg Clark, former Minister for Universities, Science and Cities. And you know what? I’m not sure where I stand on Uncle Eric’s legacy.
Over the years, many – this blog included – have given E-Pic a fair degree of criticism for some of his more outlandish behaviours and obsessions. I am not sure I will ever quite understand his fixation on flying flags and bunting. He has been a constant and vocal advocate on flag-flyers behalf, encouraging flags to be flown from council buildings high and low (with double points no doubt awarded if in the process you flew the flag of some long forgotten historical version of a local authority).
And then there are the bins. Mr Pickles over the years basically declared war on bin collection on a less-frequent-than-weekly basis, aiming to “tackle the ghastly gauntlet of bin blighted streets and driveways.” Never mind that councils are having to be creative to collect bins at all within their much reduced budgets, he wanted to see them under pressure to maintain or even improve on levels of service that the overwhelming yet silent majority of service users had no problem at all with. And don’t get him started – EVER – on local council funded newspapers (an area I won’t go into for fear of causing an internal WLLG Towers debate once more...).
And it wasn’t only the little, petty things (throw in parking charges for good measure too) which blot his copybook. During his time at the helm it did not for one second feel like he ever had our back, that he was on our side. It’s difficult to remain hopeful for the future when the person theoretically at the top of the local government decision making pile does nothing but publicly and privately berate your work and belittle your efforts, demanding ever more and condemning progress as not good enough.
Eric regularly singled out individual councils for harsh criticism, rightly or wrongly, and never missed an opportunity to score political points at the expense of other hard working councils who had the ‘misfortune’ to be run by someone wearing a different colour tie than him. That he was such a persuasive orator and garnered such a high public profile meant that his undeniably negative public views of the sector bled out to the wider public, who were led to believe that all local government staff were sitting on their backsides, doing very little for massive paycheques and wasting fortunes of tax payer’s money.
Perhaps this was why he was so ever-eager to give it away to his colleagues. As a friend recently said, the impression was that at Cabinet meetings when George Osborne said "ok, we need to make another couple of billion....any ideas?", whilst everyone else looked down and shuffled their papers, E-Pic could barely wait to offer up another slice from the local government pie. Not only was there no fight to protect his service, there was active enthusiasm to trim, trim and trim once more.
Nobody can accuse him of not living by his own values. Under his stewardship the DCLG budget itself was slashed significantly, so much so that they were able to move in with the Home Office as they simply didn’t need all that much space for themselves. While he couldn’t get other departments to quite take his approach to austerity as seriously as he did, that didn’t stop him practicing what he preached at every opportunity.
And the financial impact doesn’t stop there. Mr Pickles was vital in the process of reducing and removing the amount of ring-fencing around budgets, giving local authorities a far greater degree of financial flexibility than they had before. That some councils may have abused this in various ways large and small is an issue for them to sort out, and that even these budgets have since been further reduced can at best be described as unfortunate, but at the time it was the right thing to do and a brave thing to do.
Braver still was his decision to abolish one of the most powerful bodies in the world of local government during the previous decade – the Audit Commission. This major QUANGO required huge amounts of data collation, analysis and presentation, powering whole departments of statisticians across the country but not really with the purpose of service improvement in mind, more service reporting. Again, this freed up councils to attack local problems with local solutions rather than reinforcing a one-solution-fits-all-philosophy that was arguably in place at the time. All this reporting was replaced by a massively reduced set of performance indicators to report on and the hope that an army of armchair auditors would spring up to take their place (admittedly we’re still waiting for this army to by fully recruited and armed for battle).
He did however start at the very least pushing to supply this army with ammunition, forcing councils to up their game somewhat when it came to open data and releasing hitherto hidden datasets to the rigours of public scrutiny. Of course there were and are issues around data quality and context, but if nothing else it undoubtedly led to councils reducing the number of highly paid jobs at the top in the face of this increased public scrutiny (and with no small amount of help from the Tax Payers Alliance). Whether this saw cuts to unnecessary spending or it instead removed a huge amount of senior experience from the ranks when it was needed the most is as always up for debate, but it certainly had an effect.
The fact was though that he gave councils the ability to make these decisions for themselves. Taking aside points about flags, bin collections, parking charges and prayers at meetings (an area for another post on another day, I assure you...) he ushered in the Localism Act, and through it the general power of competence. After years of being told what to do, how to do it and what evidence to collect to prove it had been done, he simply gave councils free rein and released them to the wild. They were better able and empowered to give things ago than many thought possible and perhaps sensible, and some (though not nearly enough) took advantage of this to really push their local interests forward.
Leading on from this was devolution and the power ceded to cities through City Deals. City areas were better able to push for bespoke deals with central government, with the aim of redressing the perceived imbalance between the almighty powerhouse of London and regions outside of the M25. Yes, a lot more could have been done, but it was a move in the right direction.
If there’s one thing I wish had felt different throughout that entire, turbulent stint it would be the relationship he had with local government. Just once you wanted to hear him say publicly that while the sector would of course need to do more, that actually they were doing great things and people should lay off from criticising for a bit. Perhaps if he had been seen to defend anywhere near as much as attack his charges his words and intentions may have fallen on more sympathetic ears. This isn’t some form of demand for acceptance like a teenager to their distant parent, more a professional acknowledgement that local government was leading the way in so many areas and should be seen as the leaders they were and are.
Pickles said at the start of his reign that he felt much could be cut from local government budgets without services to the average person being severely affected, and certainly for those not deemed vulnerable that is indeed the case. A few streetlights get switched off, perhaps some libraries have closed down but in general for the majority of the population the local world hasn’t collapsed. Maybe he had something of a point after all. I only wish he hadn’t used it like a rapier to repeatedly stab at those trying to make the best of a bad situation.
Many years ago I watched an excellent road trip documentary where Stephen Fry (one of my heroes) drove across the US in a black cab. Along the way he shared a probably apocryphal quote from Oscar Wilde (one of his heroes) about scale and impact; “the immensity of some things, like the Empire State building, can only truly be appreciated from a distance”.
The intent was I believe to say that some things, when viewed up close, seem as ordinary as the next and nothing to remark upon. However, the addition of distance allows those grand works to rise above their lesser brethren and stand proud for all to see.
Perhaps in future years we will look back at Uncle Eric and appreciate that, love him or loathe him as a person, he pushed the sector to change when it needed to change the most. Perhaps not. But at least he made an impact, one way or another.
Eric Pickles; well played sir, well played.