Moving closer to the electorate

SHAUN LOWTHORPE They close our roads at short notice and constantly hit us in the pocket with council tax. So will the local government white paper help us learn to love our councils? Or is it just a turn off?


EDP, October 27 - sometime in the future . . . Motorists have reacted with fury at Mayor of Norwich Ian Gibson's £50-a-day congestion charge plans for the city. The move comes as residents in Yarmouth yesterday voted for a new bin-emptying contract after being unhappy at fortnightly collections. Turnout was a disappointing 95pc. While documents released under the freedom of information act showed that councillors in Swaffham handed out more than £10,000 in on-the-spot fines to youngsters skateboarding in the town centre last year . . .

It all sounds a bit far-fetched, doesn't it? But if ministerial ambitions are to become reality, such headlines could be part of the future of local government. Yesterday Ruth Kelly, secretary of state for communities and local government, set out how councils should move closer to the people.

Billed as a radical overhaul in the working of town halls, it promised the introduction of more powerful elected mayors on the lines of London's Ken Livingstone or stronger council leaders serving full-year terms, less red tape and new powers for parishes to impose by-laws and on-the-spot fines without asking Whitehall first. Town halls should work more closely together, or even merge some functions to cut costs. Some of that is already happening, on the administrative side, at least.

And there would be greater powers for councillors to bring other public- sector bodies such as the NHS to account in beefed-up scrutiny hearings.

But it is difficult to see town hall turkeys voting for Christmas and abolishing their own councils. And there is nothing in the white paper to impose that on them as Ms Kelly stressed there would be no “one-size- fits-all blueprint”.

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The government hopes the initiatives will “reconnect” us to our councils, who must be feeling unloved as turnouts on voting day continue to slump.

Yet is it any wonder that we feel disillusioned when councils often appear to be the playthings of central government?

Democracy by diktat imposed from the centre appears to be the favoured course of central governments of all persuasions, which have never quite trusted town halls. After all, give them an inch and you could end up with a militant tendency wreaking havoc.

And since the last major reorganisation of local government in 1974, when Norfolk County Council and Norwich City Council came into being, councils have grappled with changes including cabinet-style rule - to speed things up - thousands of inspections to comply with such things as best value (though best value for whom nobody quite knows). And even the poll tax, which was so contentious it helped bring down a prime minister.

Most of us haven't a clue which council does what. So on a practical level it makes more sense to have a one- stop shop where we can go to pay our council tax, report chipped paving slabs or even pay our parking-ticket fines - even if it just means different authorities sharing office space. (Actually some of that is happening in Norfolk, too).

On a practical level, wouldn't it be nice to 'shop around' for the best bin collection, instead of putting up with what the council gives us? Now that would be a radical 'customer is king' approach.

Yet the white paper reflects how local government is a beast with many heads with chapters on regional economy, efficiency, the role of the voluntary sector and even hints about plans to give councils more powers to regulate bus services.

Critics point out it is a sprawling mess which doesn't really tackle the real problem - how we pay for it all. That's still to come in Sir Michael Lyon's review in January.

Ruth Kelly's proposals seem to be trying to marry several ideas, including increasing political engagement and giving us a greater say in the delivery of services.

But if the white paper is to be believed, the climate in Whitehall appears to be warming to the idea of giving more powers back to councils and encouraging neighbourhood-level decision making. That all sounds to the good.

Though the reality remains to be seen.