Wednesday, 4 March 2015

Local government - cesspools, corruption and incompetence

Hardly a day goes by without some further egregious example of local government venality and incompetence.  Be it the Tories, whose snouting for self-interest is axiomatic, or Labour fiefdoms where the idea of democratic accountability is beyond the achievement of basic literacy, the destruction of what should be a tier of government in touch with daily life continues.  No GB-wide party appears to have any programme of reducing this democratic deficit, nor of acknowledging that the mess that exists needs fundamental reconsideration in the context of the delegitimised state.

Local government in England, particularly, has an unenviable task.  Hampered by an electoral system that treats most authorities as playgrounds for politicians who are either aspiring to climb the ladder, superannuated hacks or too idiotic and swivel-eyed to be let loose on any larger platform, and by a plethora of low-status, big-talking officers whose capability and imagination is hampered by both their own low status and the constant pressure to outsource to provide both diminished accountability and a suspicion of backhanded corruption, it is hardly surprising that local turnouts are low and that engagement is equally limited.

Ever since the Tories bought off the poll tax fiasco by increasing the share of central funding to local authorities, there has been no let-up in the confusion as to what the function of councils should be.  Whitehall is quite happy for it to be a means of delivering centrally-specified and funded services, and there are many of the political class who find the playground political arena suits both their abilities and their egos.  The coalition has bribed and bullied most councils into cutting services through capping council tax increases, and by giving grants to authorities who keep their budgets in line with central requirements, learning from the SNP's practices.

With declining local scrutiny, both by politicians and by the media, there is much darkness in local government that deserves illumination.  Private Eye cannot act as a sole voice of criticism, nor should it be left to concerned activists to expose the venality, corruption and misdirected nepotism that appears to be the central symptom of contemporary government.  Whereas fifty years ago there was a pride and an independence that engendered a municipal spirit, this is increasingly rare.

Much discussion around constitutional reform focuses at the national level, and it contains a justifiable set of requirements including electoral systems that reflect pluralism, institutions that are accountable and a modern framework that enshrines the citizen as the sovereign force.  This cannot be achieved without reform of local government, to ensure that it is neither a sinecure nor a dog-whistle enabler of central policies.  Indeed, all the reforms at a national level need to be reflected locally.  Proper accountability, scrutiny and the removal of allowances and back-door funding of councillors that concentrates powers in party apparatuses is a necessary precondition for reform.

The mania for outsourcing has lined the pockets of companies such as Capita and removed accountability from both council staff and elected members.  Perhaps the time has come for central government to ban any contracts that span the electoral cycle of councils, and any that do exist can be terminated without cost to the public purse after four years or elections.  Private provision of public services is not in itself evil, but it becomes so when it hamstrings and frustrates the general will through contracts that are asymmetric, too complex to implement and which commit tax revenues without commensurate accountability.

Local democracy will not be a deciding issue for the foreseeable future, although Osborne's cuts agenda will make it much clearer how the services people take for granted will be either emasculated or sold off.  Recent cuts have been largely invisible to the majority, as they pick off vulnerable groups one by one, but the easy targets are now cowed.  It will be the visible communal facilities such as libraries, sports facilities and open space that will galvanise people into action.  The first stages of this are happening, and it will be intriguing to see where, if anywhere, the incompetence and venality of local Tories causes a shift in Westminster representation in May.

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