Paul Osborn is Executive Director of Conservative Way
Forward. Follow Paul on Twitter.
Having just put the finishing touches on Conservative Way
Forward’s startling new report on local government, I am still shocked at the
implications. I know that many people out there don’t know who their local
councillor is, or even what authority they come under. I also know that lots of
people aren’t interested in local politics, believing it makes no difference
who is in charge.
When we buy a new phone, or a new television, we want to
know exactly what we are buying, what the best price is and how it has been
reviewed by consumer magazines and by other buyers. The internet makes this
easier today than it has ever been. You can scan in a barcode and get the
cheapest price and latest reviews without even leaving the shop or you can get
all the information and order from your armchair.
You can even do this with Members of Parliament. You can
search their speeches and votes on sites like theyworkforyou.com and publicwhip.org.uk.
You can create alerts to send you an e-mail updating you on your MP's
activity in Parliament.
So how does local government compare?
To find out, we sent
out a request under the Freedom of Information Act to 340 Councils asking them how
much they put up or cut their council tax this year and who voted for and
against the setting of the council tax level.
It would seem a simple and
straightforward request about the most important thing a council does.
Shockingly, 78 per cent of those councils could not or would not say. 67 per cent were
unable to say how their elected councillors voted in setting this year’s
council tax, and 11 per cent didn’t reply at all. Only 22 per cent of councils across the country
were able to state which way their councillors voted.
Worse, the councils that actually increased their tax were
even less likely to record their vote – as opposed to those that decreased or
froze their tax, who were more likely to keep a record of how councillors voted
(76 per cent of
councils which did increase their tax did not record their votes).
The most basic reform local government is gagging for would
be to simply record key votes, and ensure that they are all in the public domain
in an accessible way. This is something so simple, yet such a fundamental pillar
of democracy – the ability to hold elected officials to account for their
This damning report has shed light on a part of the
political machine not often focussed on. Interestingly, in Margaret
Thatcher’s maiden speech she moved the Second Reading of her Private Members
Bill (which became the Public Bodies (Admission to Meetings) Act 1960), which
helped to open up council meetings to the press and public. She knew the
importance to democracy of this and believed “The public has the right, in the first instance, to know
what its elected representatives are doing.”
We can only hope that the Secretary of State for Local
Government and Communities, who has done so much to improve transparency in local government, can help to fix this, and therefore help strengthen the tie between
the elected official and the voter who they work for.
The Full Report can be found at www.conwayfor.org.uk.