We’ve been looking long and hard at our local democracy, trying to identify what needs fixing. We’ve come up with the (quite long) list below. Some of these are symptoms of deeper or wider problems. Some are problems in their own right. Please note:
- this is not an exhaustive list
- very few have simple solutions
- changing to a committee-based system will NOT magically solve any of them, but it would go a long way towards resolving some of them
- some of them (e.g. Section 6) are beyond our immediate control or influence
- we want to hear what YOU think, because you’re the people that matter.
Symptoms. Problems. Solutions?
1. Problems with the Strong Leader and Cabinet system
1.1. The fact that the Executive can be composed exclusively of members from one political party
1.2. The fact that the leader has such a monopoly of power
1.3. The fact that members of the Executive are chosen by the Leader
1.4. The fact that the Executive is often not geographically representative
1.5. The lack of genuine debate at Executive meetings, with most decisions being taken in advance
1.6. The underutilisation and marginalisation of backbench councillors
1.7. The lack of opportunities for backbench councillors to build up expertise
1.8. The fact that residents do not have equality of representation – those residents with a councillor who is an Executive member have a councillor with more influence than those residents with non-Executive councillors. Though this can cut both ways if an Executive councillor uses their position on the Executive to excuse them from engaging in local issues.
1.9. Backbench councillors have little incentive to engage actively with their residents as they have little, or no, influence in the decision-making process
1.10. The ‘strong leader’ model personalises local politics in an unhealthy way
2. Problems with councillors
2.1. Councillors are not sufficiently representative of the community as a whole (too many are white, retired men)
2.2. Too many councillors fail to actively engage with the residents in their wards
2.3. Too many councillors fail to seek out and represent the concerns of their residents
2.4. Too many councillors fail to alert their residents in advance to forthcoming issues of potential importance
2.5. Too many councillors fail to make any contribution at all to council debates
2.6. Too few councillors have the courage of their convictions to speak out when their party is taking a position which they personally are uncomfortable with
2.7. The general calibre of councillors is questionable.
3. Problems with party politics at the local level
3.1. Too many decisions are taken along party political lines, when party politics is actually irrelevant to the issue at hand
3.2. There are too many slanging matches between members of the political parties which undermine rational debate
3.3. It is difficult for residents to stand as independent councillors because they have no support structure
3.4. Party politics at the local level leads to polarised debates and a lack of consensus-building
4. Problems which residents face in trying to influence the decisions which affect them
4.1. Residents are often not aware of decisions which will affect them or their community until the decision has already been made. This gives residents the impression that everything is a ‘fait accompli’.
4.2. Where consultation does take place, it is often too late in the decision-making process to make any real difference.
4.3. Consultation exercises often appear weighted in favour of the Council’s preferred option.
4.4. The Council’s interpretation of the results of consultation exercises appears at times (egg in the case of the Westgate Traffic trial) to manipulate respondents’ viewpoints to justify a pre-determined Council goal.
5. Problems with encouraging public engagement
5.1. Many residents feel a general sense of political apathy and are not interested in becoming engaged at the local level
5.2. Many residents feel resentful about the way in which decisions have been made locally and do not trust the Council’s intentions
5.3. Many residents feel that their councillors are powerless to represent them
5.4. Many residents have no contact with their councillors at all
5.5. Many residents do not have the confidence or the knowledge to engage with the Council
5.6. Many residents have never been to a council meeting and would not know when or where they take place
5.7. Many residents feel that the Council simply doesn’t listen or even care what they think
5.8. Many residents are not part of an active residents’ association and feel that their voice will simply not be heard
5.9. There is a general failing to engage young people in the political process. Schools too often see politics as ‘dirty’!
6. The long-term running down of local government
6.1. The fact that local government is starved of funding
6.2. The fact that the government uses ‘carrots and sticks’ to bribe local councils to fulfil its own goals
6.3. The fact that decision-making is increasingly centralised (in spite of the provisions of the Localism Act)
The fact that the local council doesn’t have sufficient officers or the resources to prioritise the adoption of a pro-active approach to engaging with local people.