Liam Scott-Smith is Government Relations Manager at the New Local Government Network and an Exec Member of Bright Blue welcomes the return of councillor power
According to the Department of Communities and Local Government 2011 is the year of ‘Councillor Power’. I, for one, am moved to say ‘about time’.
Often a gripe of councillors, and acknowledged by many more, is the relatively limited scope of decision making power and responsibility that councillors enjoy. Unfortunately, both parties have to take a share of the blame for this as both have overseen what can only be described as a long de-politicisation of local
politics. Whether it was Margaret Thatcher centralising in the face of irrational municipal hostility or Tony Blair centralising in pursuit of greater target scores we experienced centralising none the less.
Unfortunately local politics has repeatedly been the loser. As a policy or service decision is moved up the chain to Whitehall that decision or service in return ceases to become a regular fixture of the local political discourse.
The rules of predetermination (which Grant Shapps recently announced would be done away with) are perfect examples of such de-politicisation. The most contentious of planning issues are often some of the most politically loaded. Removing a councillor’s right to speak on certain issues removes their ability to act on behalf of their constituents and ultimately takes the issue out of the political sphere and into the managerial.
As a result of this de-politicisation we’re left with a system that acts as a disincentive to councillors trying radical policy ideas. A system that thwarts the development of dynamic political leadership. A system that has left us with depressingly low turnout for local elections and all to which we ponder the cause and solution to this downgrading of local politics.
If only we cared to notice that there was in fact little to no politics left in our local political discourse people might have kicked up a fuss sooner.
You wouldn’t think that your local councillor sits atop an organisation that provides the plethora of services a council does to judge from the usual ‘bin collection bashing’ campaigns that for many of us are all too common. Local political discourse has been forced down a narrow alley which affords it only a handful of issues it feels powered to influence. For too long many key areas of policy have been heavily restricted for local politicians.
The government’s attempt to create a more permissive environment for councils and councillors is a step in the right direction. Alone however, this is not enough. We require dynamic local political leadership to emerge to complete such a transformation. As government steps back the space would then be left for local people to step in.
As the obvious community leaders Councillors should be encouraged to engage with the big issues and feel confident in offering a vision and leadership to the communities they serve.
Merrick Cockell said on ConHome recently that he “didn’t stand for election to be an administrator”. A fitting sentiment and one that needs to be remembered by councillors across the country.
There has never been a better time to put the politics back into local politics.