Thursday, 25 October 2012

More power to local councils

Steve Richards is agin it. When I saw the headline in his comment piece in the Independent on Thursday ("So you're in favour of giving councils more power? Neither am I"), my reaction was that here was a democratic socialist typically defining democracy strictly in terms of the central politburo in Westminster. Closer reading reveals that his argument is more nuanced than that, but still wrong in my opinion.

He asserts that local services are increasingly provided by private and third-sector organisations answerable only to Westminster. He also seems to be saying that because Parliament has powers to summon ministers to make statements to the House of Commons, statements which can be questioned, and local councils cannot call decision-makers to account, then powers should not be devolved to local authorities.

The snappy answer to the last point is to grant more powers of scrutiny along with the powers to run more services locally. But my contention is that the scrutiny powers are there anyway. The last round of local government legislation strengthened the scrutiny function. Moreover, most full council meetings have the powers, within a certain time window, to call in decisions rather than rubber-stamp them. There is also the possibility of tabling a motion for debate in council, which would also have the effect of cabinet members (or mayor) and officers to answer for their actions. Members of opposition groups seem to use the latter weapon to effect in England, while in Wales it seems too often to remain sheathed. During my brief tenure on Neath Port Talbot CBC, I obtained a debate on the level of ex-council house rents. I was told by an officer that this was the first time that the standing orders had been used in that way since the authority had been set up in 1996. Mr Richards would no doubt ask me what the outcome was, and I would have to admit that the chair (illegitimately, in my opinion) curtailed discussion and the Labour majority on the council voted it down. But that brings me on to other point.

Mr Richards says: "If a free school flopped, Michael Gove would have questions to answer on the Today programme. Under the robust regime of the Speaker, John Bercow, Gove would also be in the Commons responding to an Urgent Question after his Today appearance." I put it to him that if the Tories had a majority in the House, the Speaker would have not felt as free to exercise his powers. Indeed, if there had been a Conservative overall majority in 2010, the scuttle was that Bercow, more liked by Labour and Liberal Democrats than by Tories, would have been out on his ear.

In the end, what is achieved by an Urgent Question? I suggest that, apart from dragging a minister to the House, it has no more effect than the powers which local authorities have. The issue is aired, seen by political anoraks on BBC-Parliament, and perhaps is picked up by the more serious newspapers. The government will make sure that no further action is taken, unless the coalition partners do not see eye-to-eye, in which case the questionable decision would probably not have been made in the first place.

We have a rare, and I fear probably brief, period when the electorate has given more power to ordinary members of the House of Commons than if any party had an absolute majority. This has led to more back-bench debates, and more scrutiny of ministers.

If we want to perpetuate this in Westminster, we need to introduce proportional voting for general elections. If we want to make local government more representative, and increase its power of scrutiny, we need to do the same there. STV works in Scottish local government, why not in England and Wales?
And let's have more decisions made at the appropriate level, not handed down from on high.

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