Thursday, December 27, 2007

What is the Point of Local Democracy?

The Government is today publishing a consultation paper in which is outlines plans to require local councils to "respond" to any petition they receive which have been signed by 250 people or more. This is a fairly limp response to the movement for more "Direct Democracy", which I broadly support. There will be no requirement for a council to do anything other than acknowledge receipt of such a petition, so far as I can see.

This is a major opportunity for the Conservatives to steal a march on the government. They have already published plans to intriduce binding referendums on Council Tax rises, but I think they could go much further and look at the Our Say proposals, where there would have to be a local referendum on ANY issue if enough signatures are obtained from the local population. Such referenda could then be held each local election day (ie every May), rather like they do in the USA. Each district council area has a population of around 100,000, so I would suggest a ten per cent threshold might be appropriate. This really would give power back to the people. Or do you think that local councillors are elected to represent their constituents and should be left to do so without interference from referenda?

I am still a believer in representative democracy but now that we have the means to consult people in a more meaningful way, surely we should use all the means at our disposal? The big questions is, what happens next? Should a local authority be mandated to implement whatever the local populations has voted in favour of, or should they be required to take notice of it? One thing is for sure, if it's the latter, it would be a brave council which totally went against what its local population had voted for.


Anonymous said...

Direct democracy can work...

It's an interesting idea.

But the main concerns appear to be:

* political leaders and agent provocateurs who look for support by appealing to prejudices rather than by using rational argument.

* because so many people do not vote - people would not take the time to participate in direct democracy.

* People wouldn't trust other people to decide on issues for them.

* Many voters would be uneducated or ignorant on the issues they vote on.

The good side of it might be -

* less corruption

* people have direct control over their lives

* it would create a fairer and more reasonable society because people would be more engaged with decision making

I'm not entirely sure how I feel about this subject. It's interesting - but I think maybe only a compromise would 'work'.

Not sure.

Anonymous said...

Iain, if you want some proper democracy just look at Switzerland's model. You could also learn a lot about tackling uninsured drivers and much more. I can't see why politicians want to constantly re-invent the wheel.

Obviously I can see why, if everything was running well there would be no need for so many of the self serving b'stards.

Anonymous said...

I like the idea, but would certainly side with it being advisory. Ultimately, decision-making power should reside with those we elect, but with the electorate able to pass judgment come polling day.

Anonymous said...

The problem with your suggestion, Iain, is that a referendum on any issue will quite possibly lead to local authorities becoming akin to a Student Union Council, debating issues which barely affect them, or on which they can have little or no say, just like those anti-EU referendums in Parish Councils - they will be expensive and pointless.

Anonymous said...

Referendums sound like another gimmick, and local government needs fewer of these, not more. The real problems are too little of what is spent locally is raised locally, with much transferred to reward poorly performing authorities, so there is no local accountability. On the spending front, the endless strategy writing and target reporting are box ticking exercises forced on local authorities to ensure they spend money where the centre wants it to, and if this fails, grants are just ringfenced to ensure compliance with Whitehall's latest bee-in-bonnet. Huge parts of the regulatory environment that should be in local control are in fact dictated from the centre, mostly in planning policy but also in areas like traffic schemes, recycling etc etc. Add to this no effective local democratic control over PCTs and local policing, and it is no wonder people feel local goverment is such a waste of space.

Unsworth said...

There's no point whatsoever in this.

All that is required is for Government and opposition parties to do exactly what they say they will do. When Goverments simply ignore even their own manifesto pledges, is the notion of 'local democracy' meaningful in the slightest?

This is yet another gimmick and a distraction.

Anonymous said...

Either you elect councillors and they stand or fall on what they then do in their representative role, or you run councils with only officers and run referendums on all the major decisions.

I used to work for a council that had a policy of doing full investigations each time a petition was received on a highways matter, the report would then be considered by the Highways Committee, and a decision taken as to whether to do the work. It was a terrible way of operating, as the most 'switched on' residents soon worked out how the system operated, and it took minimal effort to pull together a large petition and jump the queue of genuine priority road-works - once such a petition had been received and reported on, it was hard for councillors to turn the work down.

This means of operating was fairly swiftly abandoned.

Anonymous said...

I'm afraid I must disagree with you, Iain. Citizens' initiatives are a recipe for democracy run by different pressure groups pursuing aims than will frequently be mutually exclusive. Consider this hypothetical example:

The Tax Payers' Alliance motivates enough people to demand a referendum on lower council taxes (who would vote no?!); it is passed. Fine.

Next month, Compass uses Labour and trade union activists force a referendum on huge increases in education funding (who would vote no?!). It is passed.

Next month, Greenpeace motivates enough people to force a referendum on a huge new recycling facility, a laudable aim, of course, but an expensive one too.

The pattern would go on. Yet, with the predictably low turnout that characterises local elections, and the ability of pressure groups to organise large enough minorities to force referenda, many councils would end up with dangerously unbalanced books, not to mention the substantial cost of actually administering and advertising the referenda.

Steve_Roberts said...

There is something wrong with local government, but it is not that councillors disregard the voters, it is that most of what is done locally is forced on councils by central government's tide of legislation and then micromanaged into the dust.

Right now, we need much less government, starting from the top and going all the way down the scale, and there is not a hope while GB is in Downing Street

Devil's Kitchen said...

"... there would have to be a local referendum on ANY issue if enough signatures are obtained from the local population. Such referenda could then be held each local election day (ie every May), rather like they do in the USA. Each district council area has a population of around 100,000, so I would suggest a ten per cent threshold might be appropriate."

Of course, there is a party that already advocates such a system, Iain: that party is... ahem... UKIP...


Anonymous said...

The deeper problem with "local" government, which few people understand, is that it is in many ways just a local branch office of national government. We need to be a lot clearer about where local government is giving us local democracy and where it is just there to implement directives from Whitehall. Anyone who works in local government knows that most of what they do is in support of national goverment, not in support of the local electorate. It seems that it is in lots of people's interest to keep this fact hidden.

Newmania said...

Anon 2.10 is quite right and in fact the illusion of local democracy has become an unhelpful panacea which this would add to . People need to express poetical belief nationally thats what effects their lives and the Lib Dem lie that you can engage in nano-debate should be shot down . What matters locally is getting rid of the scum bag MP who pretends to care about Parking schemes while he supports an increasingly authoritarian Government.

Liberals cannot be allowed to get away with their phoney localism any more . Least of all one fat fraud Norman Baker

Anonymous said...

To those who say referenda are just another gimmick - wasn't that what they said about the motor car? Nothing will ever replace the efficiency of the horse and carriage?

The socialist government has spent 10 years ignoring the democratic possibilities of the internet - I think not out of malice, but because they are backward and stupid.

Let's look at the Swiss model, as someone said above. There is absolutely no reason not to grab the internet for forwarding democracy and pump out referenda if a certain number demand one.

Anonymous said...

Local government has been gutted and filleted by both Tory and Labour governments since 1979. This initiative is another instance of the centre trying to extend its reach further by requiring local councils to listen in a way that the centre does not.

Curbishly said...

Supposing a group, such as the BNP, started a petition preventing Blacks/Asians from having Council housing until all white families were accommodated?.

Far-fetched? I've just been canvassing a local authority (Essex) by-election, in a Borough (that is 98% white British) where the BNP stood for the first time, and sadly made a good showing.

The street door opinions expressed to me, and my colleagues, time after time was Immigration, Immigration, Immigration, and if a petition of 250 was needed then I suspect after a few days you would have 25,000 signatures.

That is the RealPolitik we are facing today and sooner or later the BNP will succeed in being, if not a majority, then certainly very influential.

I don't think the Chipmunk, and others, have thought this one through.

Anonymous said...

The truth is, like it or not, local politics interests far far less people than national politics, which itself inspires little confidence or enthusiasm from the masses.

I think most people just expect a decent service. Speaking from my own local perspective, our town is looking to add yet more layers to local democracy. I really hope we don't move in that direction nationally.

As for the governments petitions and referendums nonsense, it really is quite hypocritical considering they firstly did a U turn when it comes to the EU constitution referendum that never was, and they completely ignored the road charging petition for months.

As usual the government is to blame because people just end up wondering what the point is, when their expressed wishes are ignored.

Anonymous said...

Why the hell do we have fourth rate politicians running local councils ? empty the bins,clean the streets and close down all these little empires.The "leader" of my council pays himself more than the PM how much sense can that make?.me Id sack em all and start again.At least a vote every year stop em doing stupid stuff.

Anonymous said...

Unfortunately there is a major disfunction in the workings of local government which makes the term 'democracy' laughable. Here in Holt, a small town in North Norfolk a local issue illustrates this perfectly. The district council (Liberal) is riding rough shod over the town council's unanimous rejection of a planning proposal. There is no way, despite the overwhelming support for the town council, that the Liberal DC need take any notice and indeed the leader of the NNDC has attended a Holt town council meeting and said that the permission will be passed despite local opposition. The planning permission involves sale of land not legally belonging to the District Council for domestic dwellings bringing in a large sum of money which will not be spent in Holt.

Anonymous said...

Curbishlyauto is correct.

I live in a borough where the biggest opposition party is the BNP. They don't have enough seats to take on Labour even with the odd one or two Tories and Lib Dems so this would be a gift to them.

It was said that many people complained that BNP candidates were not standing in all wards.

Imagine the BNP suggesting that no coloured people or gay people would be allowed housing or education or schooling for their children... and that no immigrants should be allowed into the borough - there would be enough public support to get these measures passed.

What about the reintroduction of corporal punishment in schools and for vandals? Yep, passed by the locals....

Anonymous said...

From what i've seen of most local councillors they seem to get elected to pick up the allowances, then conveniently forget us until the next election comes along.

Anonymous said...

Referenda should be kept for overwhelming national issues, and used rarely.

This faffing about Local Democracy is simply bread and circuses stuff to fool the proles.

We should certainly offer to return many powers to local councils, and councillors, who would then have to electioneer on promises and the fulfillment thereof.

Unsworth said...

As to Referendums, anyone here care to detail which type of referendum would be appropriate?

Martin Curtis said...


Couldn't leave this without responding:

Nich Starling said...

I don't like government by referenda. Simple as that.

Anonymous said...

Anonymous said...

"Imagine the BNP suggesting that no coloured people or gay people would be allowed housing or education or schooling for their children... and that no immigrants should be allowed into the borough - there would be enough public support to get these measures passed.

What about the reintroduction of corporal punishment in schools and for vandals? Yep, passed by the locals...."

You say that like it's a bad thing.

davod said...

The clsoer you get to the so-called man in the street, the closer you get to anarchy.