April 11, 2023 11.30 am This story is over 7 months old

John Marriott: The governance of our Disunited Kingdom – Too many councils with too little power

It doesn’t have to be like this

As I spent thirty years as a councillor, democracy — a form of which got me elected several times — now seems to be struggling at various levels and in various parts of the world, including our own.

Looking at how it is supposed to work for us, how we administer our democracy from Parish Council through to Parliament and government — it doesn’t have to be how it is at present, because it is clearly not working for many of our citizens.

For those, who have bothered to read my occasional contributions on this matter, this may be familiar ground; for some it may be unknown territory. I’m not advocating revolution (although some of you may consider what I am saying to be seditious or just plain wrong), but rather evolution through devolution, keeping the best of the old and not being afraid to embrace the new (at least for us here) and looking at what works well elsewhere.

As I wrote last time, to quote the late Robert Kennedy; “Why not?”. By the way, there are local elections next month. Hands up, who knew this. Hands up if you are voting. If so, I reckon you will be in the minority. [NOTE: See The Lincolnite’s ongoing Local Elections coverage here]                                                                                                                 

Too many Councils and too many Councillors with not enough power

I’m sure that the few of you, who follow politics at various levels, will know that this year, our multitude of Parish and Town Councils as well as our six of our seven District Councils come to the end of their terms and all councillors have to be elected. In the case of Lincoln City, it’s slightly different as there are no parishes there and voters only elect a third of the City Council over a three-year cycle. In truth, as there are rarely enough candidates to force elections at Parish level, let alone fill all the seats in many cases, most voters will only be expected to elect members of our District Councils. No wonder I have placed Parish Councils into three categories: the Proactive, the Reactive and the Inactive.

The chances, as I wrote earlier, are that a majority of voters will not bother to exercise their right, even in person, where they now need to produce photo ID, nor by mail. I would also be surprised if anyone knocks on their door to ask for their vote, also if they receive much campaign literature. Perhaps this year will prove me wrong. The local elections will undoubtedly get some space in the media; but probably only as a litmus test to gauge the respective chances of the various parties in the runup to the next General Election. (Besides the Parish and District Councils, we also have the more powerful County Council, elections for which will be held in two years’ time, with almost certainly a General Election in between for good measure.)

Back in June 2014 I wrote the following in an article in another media source:

“Over the past one hundred years or so successive national governments have gradually eroded the ability of local government to make a real difference in people’s lives. What many people forget is that much of the benefits we now take for granted, such as clean water, sewerage, social housing, education, electricity and gas, to name just a few, were introduced by progressive Victorians on municipal councils up and down the country, whilst successive national governments were generally more concerned in maintaining our position as a world power by extending the British Empire and importing its natural resources for our manufacturing industries. 

“The trend towards even more centralisation was well under way when I first became a District Councillor in 1987. I well remember councillors going down to Number 10 to plead for more money and usually returning empty handed. Today local councils have been reduced largely to the role of commissioning bodies. The grants they receive from central government have been cut in the last four years alone by nearly 30% on average, with even more reductions to come. No wonder cuts in staff and services have proved inevitable. Some have argued that, unless there is a rethink, by the end of this decade, local government will be staring at a financial black hole of around £19 billion, with only absolute essentials like adult social services surviving in any meaningful form. Judging by the poor turnout at local elections, most of the public seem to be unconcerned. They ought to be.

“It doesn’t have to be this way. If all politicians could put people first instead of party loyalties, reform to local government structures and finance, together with a devolving of real power from Westminster could transform many lives and the prospects for our country as a whole.”

Not much has changed since I wrote those words. That black hole in council finances may not be as large as predicted, as most councils have had to reduce expenditure, usually by cutting provision or transferring it, as predicted, to the private sector; but this year it could be that several councils come close to bankruptcy or post a deficit, as the Council Tax, still in England at least based on early 1990s property values, cannot possibly generate enough funds to bridge the gap left by the steady reduction in Central Government Grant. Something is clearly wrong with local government, which extra cash could help to remedy; but that’s not all that’s needed.

Who might be brave, some might say foolish enough, to put themselves forward for election in these circumstances? We could start by looking at the type of people, who do, whether at local or national level. I have no real criticism as to the calibre of local government officers, many of whom compare favourably with their counterparts in the Civil Service in Whitehall, in my opinion. However, they and the councillors they serve are marooned outside London, where most of the money and decision-making power is located. That’s not really were some of the problems lie.

My argument, and I must include myself here, is that you really don’t need any qualifications to become a councillor or Member of Parliament, for that matter. As a result, you get quite a motley crew. Some get there by bloody hard work, some by luck, being in the right party in the right place at the right time. Some show an ability (some may prefer to call it cunning, which is possibly unfair) which propels them up the promotion ladder to positions of authority such as Committee Chairs, Council Leaders, Secretaries of State or even Prime Ministers. Most just try to do their best looking after their constituents and providing voting fodder for their party when required. Some are downright useless. Some, indeed, have been shown to be criminals! They say that the cream rises to the top; but also, according to a US relative of mine, so does the scrum – and he should know, living where he does! I find it interesting that quite often when a ‘councillor’ appears in a TV drama, with the notable exception of ‘Councillor Mrs Violet Buckle’ in ‘Call the Midwife’, they are more often than not portrayed as rogues on the make! Is that really what the public thinks of its politicians?

My solution, some eight years ago, was for local government to put its own house in order before it was offered any more devolution. I stick by what I wrote then:

“Before we ask central government for more power, we local politicians could start by putting our own house in order. Let’s begin with having fewer primary councils and councillors. In parts of England where reform has already taken place county and district councils have been abolished in favour of unitary authorities and the savings made in some areas have been calculated at over £80 million, with the added bonus that there is no longer so much confusion in the eyes of the public as to which council is responsible for which service. Also, proactive Town and Parish Councils could be given more responsibility to get things done in their area. The idea has been discussed on several occasions at County, with all parties except the Labour Party being in favour. The problem for Lincolnshire would be how many unitary authorities would be best. I personally think that a maximum of three would be sufficient. To have just one for the whole of the county would make it even more remote than it is now. And then there is the problem of where you draw the boundaries. Ironically, we could end up with something similar to the ‘Parts’ of Lincolnshire, which fell victim to the local government reforms of 40 years ago!”

The fact is that we have too many councils in our county and too many councillors for that matter. When I was a County Councillor, in any given term we had at least half of our number serving also as District Councillors, some even under different banners for each council. That surely says something. Less councils and less councillors with more power would surely allow us to get more of what we actually want locally. I am not in favour of putting all power into the hands one person. Elected City and County Mayors might, like Police and Crime Commissioners, be a bright idea imported from the USA; but I personally not convinced that this is the best way forward. What if you get a dud?

Too many MPs and governments in Westminster have let us down over the years

As I wrote earlier, if there is any real interest in the May election results at all, it will probably be on how the respective parties would be likely to fare in a General Election. That’s how little interest pundits and psephologists have in local government. Political parties, big and small are conscious of ‘the optics’. An increase or decrease in the percentage vote a party receives, when extrapolated nationally, is for many more important than a sympathy for those brave souls, who put their names on ballot papers in ‘no hope’ constituencies just to allow people the chance to vote for their party of choice. Many suffer ritual humiliation; but at least can claim, as loyal party members, to have done their bit to have added to the overall percentage their party receives. This kind of kidology, which is practised at all levels, is rife; but comes up against our ’first past the post’ voting system, which continues to elect governments that only once have, in theory, represented over 50% of those who voted at least since WW2.

Despite feeble attempts at devolution under the Blair government some twenty years ago, we in the United Kingdom live in one of the most centralised states in the so-called free world. Too many MPs and previous governments have let those of us down, who do not live in the South-East of England, by their inability to trust us to spend more of our own taxes where they are collected. It doesn’t have to be like this.

When we have put our local house in order, we would then be in a much better position to tackle real devolution. Surely decisions that directly affect local people should as far as possible be made by those directly affected. In in next column I will attempt to explain how we could turn our ‘Disunited’ Kingdom into a Federal United Kingdom, where our local government really works.

John was a councillor for thirty years, finally retiring in 2017. A schoolteacher by profession, he served on the North Hykeham Town Council (1987-2011), the North Kesteven District Council (1987-1999, 2001-2007) and the Lincolnshire County Council (2001-2017). He was also a County Council member of the former Lincolnshire Police Authority for eight years until standing down in 2009. In 1997 he was the Lib Dem Parliamentary candidate for Sleaford and North Hykeham. He is currently not a member of any political party.