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Local councillors deserve more power and resources


10:22 am - September 11th 2010

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contribution by Jason Kitcat

The UK, in my experience, is unique in how little resources, freedom and profile our municipal government receives. Control is notoriously centralised in London, though now with some devolution for the nations other than England.

All the parties talk of ‘localism’, ‘decentralisation’ or ‘subsidiarity’, but will the coalition government deliver any of that?

In reality UK local authorities have scant ability to make any major changes in direction. The vast majority of their funds are hand-outs from national government, over which they have no control. The incomes they can control are charges such as for parking and council tax.

However if council tax is increased too much (over 5%) the government steps in and blocks the change. Meanwhile many of the responsibilities a council must meet are set down in law and so cannot be avoided. Fixed responsibilities (costs) against very limited fundraising options (income) is a difficult place to be.

This is made much worse, in my view, because municipal political leadership is done on the cheap. I’m sure it’s not a popular view, but I think we need to pay local politicians more.

As a councillor I represent over 11,000 people in my ward and participate in decisions affecting the 250,000 people of our city plus the many more who visit. Because Brighton & Hove City Council is a unitary authority I’m fortunate to receive £11,900 a year before tax. Some city councillors receive as little as £4,000 a year.

Birmingham City Council, the largest municipal authority in Europe pays backbench councillors £16,300 a year. I don’t think that’s enough for running a city, unless we want to leave it just to the wealthy and retired.

If I look at municipal councils overseas such as in Europe, Canada and the United States we see that, particularly for cities, councillors are much better resourced and have greater influence over how their municipality runs.

There may be a chicken and egg situation going on here: Until our local authorities get more power it may be hard to argue for better resourced local politicians; but without their having more time and support we may never succeed in persuading national government to give us more freedom. Without resolving this issue the full-time council officers will continue to take the lead because elected politicians lack the time and resources to contribute effectively.

Possibly some councils are too big and need fewer councillors to make this argument more palatable to local tax payers. Regardless, if we want better local government, more local innovation and more inclusive representation we need to increase the support we provide councillors.

For cities and major towns we certainly need councillors to dedicate themselves full time to their area’s future. Amateur, part-time local politicians are not enough to provide high quality leadership for innovative local government.

—–
Jason Kitcat is a Green Party councillor on Brighton & Hove City Council and blogs at jasonkitcat.com

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Reader comments


Yes pay more and get the University lad and lases into the job, councilors in my area are retired coal miners and steel workers, up the wages and the university types would gleefully look at it as a second or even first job we ended up with the same tripe that are MP’s these days.

We do not have enough ordinary people in politics we have so many who do a degree in politics and then climb the ladder, no thanks, I’ve had enough of the Blair and Browns, the coopers the Purnells, and do not get me started on the Tories.

It’s a big mistake IMO to maintain romantic illusions about local government:

New Labour and the curse of Donnygate
http://www.guardian.co.uk/society/1999/aug/08/1

Donnygate scandal ends in jail terms
http://www.guardian.co.uk/society/2002/mar/13/uknews

An independent watchdog has recommended government intervention in a failing council after concluding it was not capable of making improvements.

The Audit Commission report was carried out after a series of crises at Doncaster Council, including a brutal attack on two young boys in Edlington. Its social services department had already been criticised following the deaths of seven children. The report said the council was failing because it was not properly run.

The Audit Commission said it was matter for Communities Secretary John Denham to decide exactly what action is taken. The report said: “Doncaster Metropolitan Borough is failing.”
http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/england/south_yorkshire/8629342.stm

The South Yorkshire Trading Standards Unit is to close on 31 July [2006] over a £14m shortfall in its accounts.
http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/england/south_yorkshire/5149450.stm

Part of the problem – and what lead to a lot of the centralisation under the Thatcher government was that people tended to blame central government for the failings of local government.

Today the blame may be justified, but at the time it wasn’t – and no central government is going to stand by and let that continue.

The day I pick up a copy of Private Eye and don’t read about dodgy councillors behaving in incredibly dubious manners – or being as secretive as Greenwich council is notorious for, then I will strongly applaud the moves for more local government.

At the moment, I just don’t think the local councillors have demonstrated that they can be trusted to be left alone to get on with it.

Once that issue is fixed, then by all means, devolve more power. But not until then.

4. Mike Killingworth

Well, when I was a councillor at the end of the 1970s (when local government actually had more discretion than it does to-day) all we got was expenses – I seem to think mine averaged out at about £30-40 a month – admittedly that went a lot further then. Robert is absolutely right (and I have a politics degree).

Bob B and Ian are also right. Giving Councils freedom means giving them freedom to fail. To allow children in care to die; to allow epidemics to spread from uncollected rubbish. To allow tower blocks to catch fire. And so on and so on.

Of course those in poorer areas are inadequately funded. Shortly after Jules Pipe was elected Mayor of Hackney eight years ago he offered the entire operation, bag and baggage, to Whitehall to run itself. Needless to say Ministers refused.

I’ll tell you something, Jason. You’re a mug, like every other local councillor in this country.

The idea of giving local councillors more money and resources is absolutely ridiculous. Local government is utterly incompetent, dishonest and frequently downright nasty.

I’ve come to expect pieces a little more, erm, radical, from this site than elected politician saying “pay elected politicians more money”.

As to the devolution of power, localism, all for it. Let’s go Danish, basic national income tax is 3.76% and top rate national income tax is 15%. There’s a stiff local income tax though: 22-28% I think it is. Varies by place and the places start at about 20,000 people in population.

Now I think that would be wonderful: and I’m absolutely certain that people will moan about taxes less (and be willing to pay higher taxes as a result) when they know that the bloke spending their tax money can be bearded in the pub any night of the week. When the answer to “why are my taxes so high” can be answered by “Ask Bob in the corner, he’s the bloke who spends it all”.

I also think the taxes would be rather better spent under such a system.

Agree with Worstall’s first paragraph – if this piece had been written by someone who wasn’t holding elected office it might have more impact..!

8. Mike Killingworth

[6] Tim, you know even better that I that the left is intellectually bankrupt and has been these thirty years.

@2@4
It’s funny how most other countries in the Western world give local government far more power than they do here. And yet the sky doesn’t appear to have fallen in in those countries.
Perhaps the low calibre of many local councils and councillors can be explained by the utter jack of power and prestige local government has in this country.
In the Victorian period and the early 20th century when local government had real power and prestige, it used to attract some big names. Austin and Neville Chamberlain and Clement Attlee all started their careers in local government for example.

The following councils lost millions of ratepayers’ monies after depositing balances in failing Icelandic banks because the banks were offering such amazingly attractive interest rates on deposits:
http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/uk_politics/7660741.stm

Perhaps it’s this enterprising spirit why so many chief executives of local authorities are paid so much more than the prime minister.

“The number of local council officers paid more than £100,000 rose by 14 per cent last year [2009], according to a survey published today. Kent and Liverpool lead a pay survey of local authorities compiled by the Taxpayers Alliance which found that 31 town hall staff are paid more than Prime Minister.”
http://www.timesonline.co.uk/tol/news/politics/article7083763.ece

Try this for the pay of council chief executives in London boroughs:
http://www.gmb.org.uk/pdf/LONCEPay.pdf1.pdf

Least anyone here think I’m getting especially at Labour controlled councils, that’s not so.

In the 1980s, the Conservative controlled Hammersmith and Fulham Council in London clocked up losses amounting to over £100 million by speculating on interest rate swaps:

“In June 1988 the Audit Commission was tipped off by someone working on the swaps desk of Goldman Sachs that the London Borough of Hammersmith and Fulham had a massive exposure to interest rate swaps. When the commission contacted the council, the chief executive told them not to worry as ‘everybody knows that interest rates are going to fall’; the treasurer thought the interest rate swaps were a ‘nice little earner’. The controller of the commission, Howard Davies realised that the council had put all of its positions on interest rates going down; he sent a team in to investigate.

“By January 1989 the commission obtained legal opinions from two Queen’s Counsel. Although they did not agree, the commission preferred the opinion which made it ultra vires for councils to engage in interest rate swaps. Moreover interest rates had gone up from 8% to 15%. The auditor and the commission then went to court and had the contracts declared illegal (appeals all the way up to the House of Lords failed); the five banks involved lost millions of pounds. Many other local authorities had been engaging in interest rate swaps in the 1980s, although Hammersmith was unusual in betting all one way.”
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Interest_rate_swap

More local government news:

“Former Glasgow City Council leader and rising Labour star Steven Purcell resigned from the council yesterday in a move that will spell the end of his political career.

“Mr Purcell’s media advisers released a statement announcing his decision after a week of frenzied speculation about the circumstances surrounding his departure from his post as head of Scotland’s biggest local authority.”
http://www.timesonline.co.uk/tol/news/politics/article7052068.ece

“The former leader of Lincolnshire County Council has been jailed for 18 months after being found guilty of misconduct in public office. ”
http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/england/leicestershire/3594421.stm

“Government experts could take over the running of Hull City Council after it was severely criticised by financial watchdogs. A report released by the Audit Commission on Monday has recommended that Whitehall intervenes because the council is too ‘weak’.”
http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/england/2159054.stm

12. Chaise Guevara

@1

“Yes pay more and get the University lad and lases into the job, councilors in my area are retired coal miners and steel workers, up the wages and the university types would gleefully look at it as a second or even first job we ended up with the same tripe that are MP’s these days.

We do not have enough ordinary people in politics we have so many who do a degree in politics and then climb the ladder, no thanks, I’ve had enough of the Blair and Browns, the coopers the Purnells, and do not get me started on the Tories.”

Explain exactly how being a retired miner or steel work automatically makes you a better local politician than being a graduate? Preferably without reference to “ordinary people”, unless you can define what you mean. A lot of people, funnily enough, are neither miners or steel workers; does that make them not ordinary?

Goodness what an outpouring of confidence in local government and councillors!

Those commenters saying that local government is ineffective are making the case for me. Empowering councillors, giving them more time (through better pay) will lead to better decision making and better run councils. The ratio between officer pay and councillor allowances is currently completely skewed in favour of senior officers.

The views I expressed regarding empowering councillors and local government has been long repeated, most recently by the POWER Inquiry and the Councillors Commission.

Councillors should come from all walks of life. But if it’s only the retired or wealthy who can afford to be councillors surely there’s something wrong, just as it would be a problem if it was just politics graduates becoming councillors!

@10.11

Yes we all know that local councils mess up sometimes but that doesn’t really answer my point. That mosy other countries in the Western world give local government far more power than they do here, and apparently the world hasn’t ended.

I seem to recall that New York City nearly went bankrupt in the 1970s. As do other municipalities from time to time.

http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=60740288

Yet curiously, nobody in the US appears to see centralised micro management of everything as the answer to this.

Because as we all know, central government is perfect and never makes mistakes, does it.

http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-514152/Blundering-Government-bureaucrats-2m-council-grant-WRONG-Newcastle.html

15. Mike Killingworth

[13] Let me ask you a slightly different question, Jason, based on my experience from both sides of the officer-member divide.

I think it fair to say that in the typical LA, each side despises the other.

Members believe that officers do their best to obstruct manifesto implementation and prioritise their own needs – “the bureaucracy is expanding to meet the needs of the expanding bureaucracy” – which IMO is why outsourcing is so popular, whether it saves money, improves services or not – at least it takes the officers down a peg or two.

Officers believe that members are either not up to it (I remember a party meeting when a particularly dim character was being proposed and being told that we should have a “mixed ability Council” :lol:) or are only interested in their own careers (I was once told by a political colleague, with a perfectly straight face, that the only reason I was a Party member was to further his career).

I don’t think you deal with these real issues by throwing money at the problems.

It is perhaps also worth noting that, by international standards, very little taxpayers’ money is lost to corruption or theft, by councillors or officers.

If your primary concern is to make service on local authorities more attractive, may I suggest an alternative proposal?

None of us think that the current wholly appointed House of Lords is a particularly bright idea. Yet MPs are understandably leery of having people directly elected sit in the Upper House for various reasons, some perhaps better than others. Perhaps members of the Lords could be appointed by local authorities (say for seven year terms): giving each Council one seat for every 200,000 electors or part thereof would produce a reasonable sized House (turnover could be staggered to retain institutional knowledge) and a further career oppotunity for local councillors created.

“Yes we all know that local councils mess up sometimes but that doesn’t really answer my point. That mosy other countries in the Western world give local government far more power than they do here, and apparently the world hasn’t ended.”

Few countries are as densely populated as England.

In 2004, they had a vote in the North East Region about whether to have an elected regional assembly, which would have acquired devolved powers and functions currently exercised by central government, the regional offices of central government or by quangos, centrally appointed after local consultations.

The proposal put in a referendum was promoted on the basis that such an elected regional assembly would be more democratic and more responsive to local needs and opinions. It was resoundingly rejected – and with it went the credibility of the whole New Labour programme for elected regional assemblies in every English region.

“The total number of people voting against the plans was 696,519 (78%), while 197,310 (22%) voted in favour.”
http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/uk_politics/3984387.stm

It’s often conveniently forgotten about nowadays that in the referendum in Wales in 1997 on whether to have a Welsh assembly, there was only a bare majority in favour in a poll where the turnout was only 50%. Only a quarter of the electorate in Wales voted for an elected regional assembly with devolved powers.

@16 Were people in the North East voting against it in principle or against the specific proposal? Or, in other words, would it have been more popular if it had had more power?

@17 “Were people in the North East voting against it in principle or against the specific proposal? Or, in other words, would it have been more popular if it had had more power?”

Some polling agency – or the Labour Party – probably polled to assess the motivating factors for the rejection of the proposal for a regional assembly in the NE. But the “No” vote was so large and decisive that the intended programme for assemblies in all English regions lost credibility and sank without detectable trace.

Subject to correction – Cameron’s announced policies for localism and the Big Society are the first attempt since to revive the notion of more powers, functions and responsilities for local councils, albeit with much less money to spend. As I understand it, both government regional offices and regional development agencies are due to be chopped.

Some – including myself – smell a large rodent in all that. Councils will get greater responsibilities, sure enough, but they will have less wherewithal to fulfill those responsibilities and will be expected to mobilise volunteers to fill the resources gap. Whatever failings appear in social safety nets, the blame will be directed at local councils and lethargic local volunteering. Coulson will see to it that central government is not to blame – the BBC will have been explaining the “context” of the public spending cuts.

Btw never mind the TUC – the assessment in the Telegraph of Osborne’s emergency budget in June said: “Pensioners came out as one of its biggest losers”:
http://www.telegraph.co.uk/finance/personalfinance/how-budget-affect-me/7847875/Budget-2010-Pensioners-are-the-biggest-losers.html

With more blame in prospect for local councils and less money to spend, we can speculate about what will motivate anyone to want to become a councillor. The attendance allowances, perhaps, or early knowledge of local planning decisions?

One piece of excellent advice in this thread – keep reading the Rotten Boroughs page in Private Eye. I try to make a practice of browsing that page when at the magazine section of the supermarket where I buy my groceries.

@15; “It is perhaps also worth noting that, by international standards, very little taxpayers’ money is lost to corruption or theft, by councillors or officers.”

Acording to this report, the scale of the alleged land deals, bribes, private finance initiatives and fiddling of expenses associated with Donnygate was estimated as worth £60 millions:
http://www.guardian.co.uk/society/1999/aug/08/1


Reactions: Twitter, blogs
  1. Liberal Conspiracy

    Local councillors deserve more power and resources http://bit.ly/aTUTUe

  2. Darren Bridgman

    RT @libcon: Local councillors deserve more power and resources http://bit.ly/aTUTUe <I think so

  3. Mike Wright

    RT @libcon: Local councillors deserve more power and resources http://bit.ly/aTUTUe <- more power, less scrutiny: what could go wrong?

  4. Rachael

    RT @libcon: Local councillors deserve more … http://bit.ly/aTUTUe <<Councillors should lead on strategy/policy; officers implementation

  5. Ryan Bestford

    'Local councillors deserve more power and resources', says Green councillor @jasonkitcat – http://bit.ly/cANEs4 (via @libcon)

  6. Jason Kitcat

    My latest piece > RT @libcon Local councillors deserve more power and resources http://bit.ly/aTUTUe

  7. Sophia R. Matheson

    Local councillors deserve more power and resources | Liberal …: Amateur, part-time local politicians are not eno… http://bit.ly/a2ejgR





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