The Death and Life of Local Democracy

1. I pondered whether to entitle this talk "Potholes"! The Chancellor announced in his Autumn Statement, that he is putting £250 million into a National Potholes Fund. He said "We will fill over 4.5 million potholes through a new dedicated Potholes Action Fund"! Could there be anything that more typified the government's view of local government? The whole idea is totally risible! We have war going on across the Middle East, with a migrant problem no country is coping with, and with a referendum on our future within a united Europe fast approaching, and the central government is bothering about potholes! But I eventually kept to my original title, which requires an implicit question mark after the second part of it.

2. The virtual death of local government over the past fifty odd years has been a curious consequence of narrow party solidarity. Over the decades local party leaders have sided far too much with their party colleagues in Westminster and have acquiesced in the salami technique of stripping local government of its powers bit by bit. Today local government is a shadow of what it once was. But a little while ago there was a highly significant letter in The Observer which may well have passed you by. It was an urgent clarion call for devolution across England. Nothing unusual? No - but it was signed by the leaders of the three party leaders on the trade union for local government in England - the "Local Government Association." Without such cross-party solidarity there can be little hope of rescuing local democracy.

This is not some esoteric philosophical issue. It is crucial for our democratic survival. A political theorist and lawyer, J Toulmin Smith, well known and respected in his time, said in 1849:

Local self-government is the rock of of our safety as a free state; the only absolute security for the maintenance of the fundamental laws and institutions of our land, on whose maintenance wholly depends our peace, prosperity, and progress.

The only role of national government in relation to local democracy should be the administering of a Rate Equalisation Grant - as we once had - to provide for appropriate financial support to be given to those local authorities which do not have the inherent financial capacity of the richer authorities. As Fred Tolson, my Leeds City Treasurer, said in 1975:

.... unless some workable Rate Support Grant system is evolved after due research, giving Exchequer aid related to spending needs and taxable (not just rateable) capacity, local government will decline into a mere agency for whatever Government happens to be in office.

He has been proved abundantly correct. We need to change the rule of ultra vires under which a local council has to find explicit legal authority for what it intends to introduce, to a rule of intra vires whereby a council can do anything not formally prohibited by law. In the raising of local finance it should be up to a council to determine what it believes it can persuade its electors to support. The government went down this path in its localism act but it has not been taken up.

3. In 1948, the Bradford City Council was responsible for:

  • Gas
  • Electricity
  • Transport
  • Water
  • Local hospital
  • Most social security
  • Further education
  • Some higher education
  • Ambulance
  • Police
  • Fire service

Not one of these is now within a democratically elected local authority. And not one has its budget, and its services, and its accountability, within a holistic democratic environment.

In recent years even housing and education have been taken away - and sometimes returned. And even the use of the cash raised locally is subject to a host of central government restrictions.

4. For a moment, taking my own city, let's go back much further - another hundred years before 1948! All the following were Town Council initiatives.

  • Leeds Prison - 1847
  • Leeds Town Hall - 1858
  • Water Supply - 1852
  • Roundhay Park - 1880s

Our civic leaders in those days took on huge investments which they believed to be necessary. They had a vision and a bravery that is sadly lacking today!

5. Whenever localism, devolution or regional authorities are discussed, there is an immediate response: "We don't want more politicians and we don't want another tier of government."

Fine! That is not being suggested. What few of the public realise is how many "hidden" politicians there are, and how many "tiers" of government exist today.

6. Even I was surprised at the scale of it when I did a little research!

So let me give you a little bit of the results of that academic research. From 1973 to 1986 we had the West Yorkshire Metropolitan CC - it had its defects, yes but it did a good job. (NB Patrick Jenkin and Iain Gilmour's comment after 1986 parliament debate) I looked at its services today:

  • Police - 1 Labour - PCC - elected on its own! No chance of co-ordination with other services, such as planning and social services that greatly affect policing;
  • Fire Authority - 22 members: 13 Lab, 6 Con, 3 Lib Dem
  • WY "Combined Authority" (including transport - the Metro) - 10 members: 6 Lab, 2 Lab, 1 Lib Dem, 1 Ind.
  • WY Ambulance Service - NHS Trust - details not published
  • WY Joint services - (detail) - 31 members: 21 Lab, 8 Con, 2 Lib Dem
  • YPO - representatives from 13 local authorities;
  • Bodies dealing with planning and economic development - who knows how many!

At least six separate bodies, rather than a single West Yorkshire Metropolitan County Council - with its 88 elected members - doing all this. Much of this panoply of unaccountable boards is a direct consequence of the abolition of the Metropolitan County Councils in 1986.

7. Now let's look at other services Leeds City Council ran which have gone:

  • Further education - Leeds City College - 8 governors
  • Leeds Beckett University - 20 governors
  • Yorkshire Water - private - 7 directors

And, of course, we have Leeds Bradford Airport sold off to the private sector and now completely deaf to all public complaints.

Further back: gas and electricity - now privatised! And Social Security is entirely central government.

8. Even local government's remaining financial powers have been restricted. Rates - Council tax - business rates, all now subject to central limitations, plus unfunded duties forced on councils by government. And, of course, there is now the infamous "Potholes Fund."

9. So where do we start? Now it is true that politics is complex! The public is deceived if we tell them that it is all simple!

There is currently great opportunity, following the Scotland referendum in September 2014 and the promises previously made. Remember the historic county of Yorkshire (still used as the definition by Yorkshire County Cricket Club!) has a larger population than Scotland!

First - there does not have to be uniformity. That has always been the besetting sin of reform. Different patterns suit different areas. For instance - Liverpool, Manchester and Birmingham (and largely Sheffield) have one huge main centre, whereas Yorkshire (and the North East) has a number of separate and important centres. Thus à la carte and not table d'hôte! We already have four different devolved assemblies - Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland and London - and neither central nor local government has collapsed in those areas.

Second - devolution does not have to be imposed. It can be "on demand". If we in Yorkshire want it and can make a case let's have it. If "Mercia" or "Wessex" are not yet keen, leave them to it! We already have government moves to agree devolution to Manchester and Sheffield. These have been at the price of having a directly-elected mayor. This is a thoroughly bad idea. First, as seen in Doncaster under both elected mayors (Labour and far-right), it is a recipe for eternal strife between mayor and council. If there has to be such an elected chief executive then it must accompanied by a dedicated elected legislature - as in London. Simply adding a mayor on top of the existing structure does not work. Also, the great municipal "bosses" of yesteryear, leaders of the majority party, would have laughed at the idea that they could not take swift and decisive action. And, of course, if a party leader proved not to be up to the job, then the party was well able to replace him or her. With elected mayors, however, one is stuck with them, whether good or disastrous. It is up to local authorities in Yorkshire to decide the boundaries of the region to which they want the government to devolve wide ranging powers. I well understand the reluctance to give more recognition to Leeds as a regional centre but, one way or another, an early decision is required. If there is no agreement, there will be no devolution. For myself I would opt for the whole of the historic county of Yorkshire as the basis for negotiation.

10. So let's look at what we need in this region. What different levels? The key question is, "What level of government is needed for what service?"

  • Village Hall - parish - Baildon, Thornton etc
  • Housing - city - Leeds, Bradford (border: local newspaper areas!)
  • Transport - Region (join the two Met Counties and the two counties)
  • Defence - national
  • Climate change - Continental (indeed global)

We already have four of the five - and nine ad hoc bodies for the fifth! Nb: we do not want a region in the form that John Prescott put to a plebiscite in the North East in 2004 which took powers upwards from local councils rather than down from central government! Also, if smaller local authorities on the edge of the cities stay out, they then lose their influence on key decisions, (cp example of Harrogate and Leeds in 1974 - cars travelling down the A61 into Leeds with signs in the rear window "Keep Harrogate out of Leeds"!)

11. At the heart of the debate there has to be an acceptance of "pluralism", ie different priorities and different levels of service - and the postcode lottery, which is actually a good thing. Without it there cannot be local innovation.

Pluralism is not instinctively popular with politicians (except Liberals!) They like to control everything! It's like poker - no-one with four aces asks for a new hand! It means accepting as legitimate, views you don't like - (as in the Ray Honeyford case in in Bradford - see my Yorkshire Post article, 12 November 1985). Also, currently secularism and Islam pose the same issue and we have to permit free speech, particularly for views we personally find unacceptable. (See my book Diversity in Danger available from Beecroft Publications.

12. It is time to ponder how we want to be governed and what democracy really means. If we do not grasp the challenge, and, more importantly, if we do not persuade the public of the crucial importance of the democratic case, we shall face disaster, with all decisions being at the whim of any government in Westminster.