IN researching for my recently published report A Future for Local Government in England, it became apparent that the relationship between voters and their local councillors is radically dissimilar to that between voters and their Member of Parliament. Indeed, many voters could not readily name their local councillors or the different responsibilities that those in local government are charged with.
Since the Great Reform Act of 1832 established modern governance in the UK, local government has grown, shrunk, evolved, merged, had responsibilities centralised to government and now returned again, albeit through yet another layer of politicians.
My report argues that the time has come to tear up all these complex layers and create a new system that the public can easily hold to account at the ballot box and which has much greater powers passed down to it from central government.
The strength of a democracy is when politicians fear the electorate. Do those in elected office genuinely fear that an alternative party can defeat them and remove their power?
And if the public are unclear as to who actually has responsibility for the decisions that affect their lives, are they able to bring about mass change at the ballot box to change this?
In the 1997 election, the public wanted Tony Blair to be their Prime Minister and millions upon millions of voters chose his party for the first time in their lives, even in seats where normally Conservative MPs had been returned safely at election after election. That election night, many safe Conservative seats fell to Labour, as the public made clear that they no longer wanted a Conservative administration and voted for a credible alternative.
This was democratic power at its best. The public wanted things to change, they knew exactly who to vote for to make it happen, they did it in one night and the result was seismic.
At a local level, however, things are very different. It is simply not clear to voters with two tiers of councils, and elections by thirds or halves in multi-member wards, how to bring about mass change in one election and whether this election actually impacts the services they are concerned with anyway.
We have seen falling turnouts in local elections for years, generally well below that of a general election, despite some of the most fundamental decisions on services and voters’ everyday lives being made at the local level.
Therefore it is my proposal that in order for electors to take real control of their local services and provision, the public need to be able to first clearly identify the governance structure and its responsibilities and second, be able to bring about real change in one night at a ballot box.
My paper proposes the scrapping of our current systems of local government and their replacement by single tier, county unitary authorities. To these authorities, councillors will be elected from single member wards representing around 15,000 people. Voters will not only know which body runs their services but who their local representative on that body is.
It is certainly true that not enough power and responsibility is given to councils to have control of the decisions they take. Any new system of unitary authorities needs to ensure that all relevant powers are devolved from Whitehall, in order to push power down to the local level.
Along with this there must come the recognition that the role of a local councillor is a professional one, which should attract a salaried remuneration. Under my proposal of an annual salary of almost £38,000, with one member per ward and the establishment of single tier county authorities, there would still be a saving of almost £30m to the taxpayer annually.
As a resident of Leeds for almost 20 years, I have always been frustrated at the level of transport infrastructure, vision and investment. There is a fundamental lack of oversight and responsibility centred on a single individual – at ward level or for the council as a whole.
That is why I propose that the new unitary authorities should be headed by a county mayor with their own electoral mandate. This would allow not just an integrated approach through one office, but, by taking responsibility for delivery of transport, the county mayor would also be the face from whom the public would expect a vision and implementation.
All of my proposals have two fundamental objectives in mind. The first is to make it clear who is responsible for delivery of local services and the vision across the county. The second is to ensure the ability of the public to hold local politicians to account.
Councils must have all the powers they need to implement the local agenda and we must remunerate this serious work of local governance appropriately, but they also must always fear the powerful voting pen of the public, ready to strike down failure.
Alec Shelbrooke is the Conservative MP for Elmet and Rothwell.