Time to connect the disconnected

By Sue Baxter | 24 May 2017

The new metro mayors in England are an important and positive development creating a real focus for devolution from Westminster and potentially Brussels. However, the wider decentralisation agenda remains disjointed and confusing as the picture varies so widely from place to place. And many communities and neighbourhoods up and down the country feel disconnected from the project and sceptical of its benefits.

That is why the National Association of Local Councils (NALC) wants to see the new Government, whatever its hue, relaunch the devolution project, but crucially ensuring it is effective and engages all local communities.

An important part of this is making sure the new mayors do not just become regional barons replacing Whitehall mandarins. We must have a strong voice for communities too, and NALC and our county associations will be urging them to progress further devolution and engage with grassroots organisations, including parishes.

So much of the conversation within the Government and main opposition parties around devolution has been about these relatively new types of mayors. The recently published manifestos from the main political parties do promise better, and more.

In the Conservative Party manifesto there are commitments for continued support for the adoption of elected mayors, but a relaxation for rural counties, and in the Great Repeal Bill considering the level best placed to take decisions, ensuring that power sits closer to the people, a measure also proposed by Labour. Both Liberal Democrats and Labour are pushing a new constitutional convention.

NALC calls on whoever forms the next government to seize the opportunity provided by Brexit to fundamentally rethink devolution to:

  • maximise powers and responsibilities devolved to the lowest and most local level
  • encourage more people to get involved and engaged in their local communities, building resilience, empowering neighbourhoods and engaging more people in local democracy
  • ensure key local discretionary services from public conveniences to children’s centres, from libraries to local festivals continue to be provided during this continuing period of financial austerity

Local councils are the backbone of our democracy and at the heart of many communities in England. They provide our neighbourhoods, villages, towns and cities with a democratic voice and a structure for taking action – real people power at grassroots level. We need more local democracy with more empowered people and places.

Giving power to local people, when it’s done right, brings democracy closer to home – it’s empowering and can make for better decision-making, less disillusionment with politics and more local accountability and transparency.

Some forward thinking principal (county, district, unitary and borough) authorities are already seeing local councils as vehicles to bring about connection to power and the end of the current malaise of dissatisfaction among people with this country’s governance. So why are they doing this?

With an extensive range of discretionary powers local councils provide and maintain a variety of important and visible local services which can make a huge contribution to their communities, for example, providing local transport solutions, supporting the local economy and businesses, improving the visual appeal of the area, increasing community safety, contributing to arts, culture and leisure provision, managing parks and open spaces, or helping meet housing, health and social care needs.

The spirit of a local community is often visible in the range of activities and opportunities for local people to come together and participate in cultural, community focused, and recreational activities.

Through their role in the planning system, particularly since the introduction of neighbourhood planning, local councils have the ability to shape future physical development within their communities.

Local councils share many characteristics with local community groups, charities or indeed active citizens, but their nature as the first tier of government for their communities makes them unique, distinct and of huge and growing importance. Through their democratic mandate, ability to raise a precept and the legislation that governs the transparency of their processes and finances, they hold a unique position and legitimacy within their communities. The best local councils go above and beyond their legal obligations, demonstrating efficiency and transparency in all their work and continuously seeking opportunities to improve and develop even further.

Councils can support communities to build their capacity and resilience by encouraging people to get more involved in local issues. They can do this by working with individual residents, local groups and organisations, local businesses, and other parts of the public sector. This may be in response to a challenge such as coordinating responses to flooding, setting up food banks, or campaigning on a local issue.

However there are not local councils everywhere in this country culminating in a further disconnect between the potential reach of devolution and neighbourhoods. So NALC calls on regional mayors, combined authorities and principal authorities to support local people and help the formation of local councils in their areas. This should also be central to any merger or regorganisation plans.

Returning to regional mayors, there is concern that fiscal devolution to the regions without any consideration of the democratic aspects is rather a hollow offer for people – successful devolution can’t just be economic: it has to be democratic, too, otherwise, without adequate democratic oversight or debate about where money should go, the financial side of autonomy can run into trouble.

But if the Government wants devolution to be deep and sustainable, everyone should benefit from a degree of public involvement and bring power down to local people on their doorsteps.

Cllr Sue Baxter is chairman of the National Association of Local Councils

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