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John Redwood: Too many councils undermine local democracy by blaming Westminster for their failings | Conservative Home


Sir John Redwood is MP for Wokingham, and is a former Secretary of State for Wales.

The local elections were ignored by a large majority of the electorate. Whilst polls usually show enthusiasm for more devolution and more local decision making, when people are offered a chance to vote for local representatives most choose not to.

Police and crime commissioners have not taken off as an idea, with many people regarding it as an unnecessary layer of government. Few of them become well-known names in their regions, and most avoid undue controversy.

The public want an independent police force enforcing the law without party preferences coming into it; the Commissioner has to be careful not to intervene in operational matters or seek to politicise the look and thrust of daily policing. Setting a budget, an agenda, and priorities are all good things to do, but they have rarely become matters of general debate. There is no formal opposition to the PCC to highlight issues, options, and differences of view.

Nor is the idea of elected mayors universally popular, and some areas have rejected the proposition. Little wonder when some mayors prefer to use the office as a platform to grandstand on national issues. Labour mayors often seek to wade into Westminster debates, talking about things over which they have little or no power, and may see the mayoral pulpit as a means of enhancing their position and career prospects within their own party.

When it comes to things over which they do have power, they normally blame the Government for anything that goes wrong whilst claiming credit for anything positive that happens, whoever actually initiated it, and often have difficult relations with the councils with which they need to work.

As a former county councillor myself, I want local government to work. A good council can make a lot of difference for the better, making wise choices over local services and the local environment whilst providing good value for money.

Yet I find too many councils lack good political leadership capable of using the considerable financial and other resources they command to serve their public well.

The Liberal Democrats running Wokingham Borough waste huge sums on things we do not want, pursue vendettas against local drivers, hike the car parking charges and council tax – and then plead poverty and blame the Government for any and all their problems. They often ignore the views of the public whilst spending liberally on formal consultations.

Labour- and Lib Dem-led councils too often run down local government, belittle their budgets and powers, and run campaigns against the Government and local Conservative MPs. They see their job as advancing their party, rather than looking after the needs and the money of the people they are meant to serve.

Many councils have spent too much money buying up properties at high prices, claiming they would make money for taxpayers. As a result, some of them are now teetering on the edge of bankruptcy, finding the interest they have to pay on the large borrowings they took out exceeds the rental income.

They did not forecast the big changes to local property markets which have led to some empty shops, lower office rents, and difficulty in keeping and recruiting tenants; the private sector did, and offloaded shops and fringe properties to councils.

These same councils apparently have plenty of money to spend on consultants; on new schemes to wreck roads and impose more cameras, lights and controls; to increase their numbers of well paid officials; and maintain large office estates. Few experiment with better ways of delivering social care. Not enough spend transport money on improving junctions to make them safer and easier to use, avoiding jams and delays.

Most councils seem to think they can keep on adding extra homes without adding road capacity, and without facilitating more cables and pipes to increase utility supplies. They often even allow delays in putting in more surgeries and school places, then have to rush to catch up.

To succeed, local authorities need opposition groups that concentrate on expressing the needs and preferences of the public. They need to  expose what is wrong with the way the ruling group is spending all the money available, with a view to improving priorities and value for money. Those councillors running councils need a good working relationship with officers, to be well-informed, and to take complaints seriously.

Local government controls much of social care, education, most roads, local transport services, leisure and amenities, and the maintenance of our important public spaces. They have wide-ranging planning powers to decide on how much development and where it should go.

We need a better and more honest account of how much money they spend and how much power they have, and more focus on their options and responsibilities. With that, more people would see a good reason to go and vote.

Democracy needs the voters to engage as well as the politicians. Too many are put off by parties wrongly claiming everything comes from central government.



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