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Saturday, June 16, 2007

The Tory solution

In most papers today we can read the outcome of Michael Heseltine's review of local government. He has proposed US-style directly elected mayors to run big city councils across England. These mayors will run all top-tier authorities, serving four-year terms, with executive mayors for Birmingham, Newcastle, Manchester and Liverpool having powers over regeneration, transport, skills, fire, waste and police services.

The Guardian tells us that Heseltine's proposals go further in the direction of devolving power to local communities than anything offered so far by Labour but already it is facing resistance within the Conservative Party:

Lord Heseltine said local government had been emasculated. Mr Cameron said: "A city, like a nation, needs a single individual at the top, someone everyone knows is ultimately in charge, and who is directly responsible to the citizens for the state of their community."

But the Tory leader in Bradford, Kris Hopkins, said: "I simply do not see the merit in this idea. As the presidential style of the Blair government has vividly demonstrated, the concentration of so much power and influence in the hands of one individual does not make for good decision-making."

Kris Hopkins is right. The Tories do not have a good record on local government reform, introducing the poll tax and lumbering Wales with a number of local councils that are too small to effectively govern their own area. However, their mistakes do not sit alone. Meddling by the current Labour government has seen the creation of cabinet government and directly-elected Mayors, both of which have removed power from local communities and their representatives, undermined effective scrutiny and concentrated influence in too few hands.

Heseltine's and Cameron's vision of a single City boss wielding great power is a further step in this direction. Far from designing a first citizen who everybody 'ultimately knows is in charge', the Tories will be creating a monster that will not only brook no opposition but will also end up rivalling MPs and the Government itself within each City.

It is not stronger government we need but more accountable government. We should be empowering local communities and their representatives and reintroducing transparency and accountability into the system. If the Tories think that directly elected Mayors are the answer to that challenge then they have asked themselves the wrong question.
I I remember Michael Helseltine advocating this in the 1980s, when he was Secretary of State for the Environment. I personally believe that this is the right way to go for two reasons. Having observed this system of local government first hand. I believe there is far more accountability and scrutiny of what a mayor does than the present cabinet system that one finds in the UK.

I think recently of the strange system that Russell Goodway set up in Cardiff at the turn of the Century. When he was both Lord Mayor as well as council leader (In violation of the city charter though). Because Labour was in the majority, it was very difficult to prevent him from making decisions (including the one concerning payments). Because of separation of powers between council and mayor. Then the council can call in decisions.

It is more efficient when you look at the different departments that operate within local government. For example an individual that knows more about his brief, than a politico, could run education! When I was still living in Cardiff, one heard all the time criticism of the cabinet member in charge of education as knowing nothing. At least a mayor could appoint an individual who worked in education. In the US appointments to the cabinet had to be approved by council. (Prevents cronyism or patronage).

Of course, education is not part of local government in the US. They have school districts with elected boards (something else I would favour)

Your post seems to suggest that local government is already blessed with effective scrutiny processes and that power is diffused across communities and within the Council Chamber.

As we all know, any local government Administration tries to concentrate power within its own ranks. Invariably reaction to criticism is characterised by over-defensiveness and almost a blind belief in everything that the Council does is right and beyond challenge. Most of all, all Administrations blame the previous lot - seemingly for as long as they can get away with it (much like Blair's government in its first, err...10 years?!?).

Local government is run by officers, who run rings around Council Leaders. Many Council Leaders have other employment obligations and the model of "amateur" government at the local level is increasingly shown to be wanting.

I have had discussions with LibDem, Labour and other Conservative Councillors in Swansea and further afield and I have witnessed a surprising amount of consensus on the need to radically reform local government.

Ideas shared with these colleagues include cutting the number of elected Members, increasing allowances to enable Councillors to perform their roles away from the stresses of having to hold down a job at the same time and indeed the introduction of a separately elected Executive arm of local councils. This executive arm could be a single directly elected Mayor, it could be a Mayor and a couple of deputies or, as in many City and County authorities in the States, a series of directly elected Executive Members across a range of portfolios.

The real question we need to ask is whether the current model of local government actually serves the electorate effectively. At the moment, the answer is surely no. We therefore need to create a system which is more accountable, more open to scrutiny and more responsive to local communities.
The killer argument against elected mayors which appears to be emerging is that the system lacks a demos. In London, there is one guy and a completely anonymous assembly. You will need an enormous personality to beat Ken - significantly no-one in the GLA is considered capable, despite years of experience at the coalface. So the opposition parties, in desperation, are turning to celebrities (and cause celebrities) in the hope that one of them might be able to come close to matching Livingstone's ego.

It certainly leads to more newsworthy, personality based, politics. But is it better? I'm open to the idea of directly elected mayors, but not if they are unaccountable as the current system makes them.
Rene, you have clearly misread my post if you think I am saying that all is well in local government. The giveaway was the line that said: "the creation of cabinet government and directly-elected Mayors, both of which have removed power from local communities and their representatives, undermined effective scrutiny and concentrated influence in too few hands."

My problem with your solution is that it takes local government in the wrong direction and reinforces the faults that are already there with regards to inadequate scrutiny and lack of transparency and accountability.
What Heseltine and others are missing (again) is that Conservatives are significantly better at running local government than other parties. If it ain't broke...
"But the Tory leader in Bradford, Kris Hopkins, said: "I simply do not see the merit in this idea. As the presidential style of the Blair government has vividly demonstrated, the concentration of so much power and influence in the hands of one individual does not make for good decision-making."

That speaks more about the weakness of the parliamentary system. Just ask Don Rumsfeld.

A presidential form of government has been evolving since WWII. Problem is there are no checks and balances (or at least they are weak)
Peter, why are you publicly objecting to the new regional passport office being brought to Swansea when we are crying out for jobs of this sort???
Anon 10.24pm: I am not objecting to the new regional passport office being in Swansea. You need to go back and read the article again. I am objecting to it being situated on the enterprise zone where there is limited public transport.

My point is that it should be in the City Centre. That way somebody travelling to it by bus or train does not need to change onto a second bus and spend 45 minutes travelling around the outskirts of Swansea to get to it.
Peter, half of the residents of Swansea and area never go into the city centre. Parking is a huge problem and there is poor accessability for disabled. The Enterprize Zone is much better, parking on the doorstep. Why don't you campaign for better buses to the Enterprize Zone?
Remember that this passport office serves a large chunk of West Wales as well. If somebody wants a passport then they are far more likely to be able to reach an office in the City Centre if they dont have a car than one on the Enterprise Zone. If they have a car they could reach either.

There are a large number of disabled parking spaces in the City Centre and a number of easily accessible park and ride sites. Bus services are, of course, provided by a private company. They will only put on additional services if they can make a profit.

It is not just the availability of buses to the Enterprise Zone but the fact that people will have to change buses at the Quadrant bus station, that journey times from their home in Swansea to the passport office could be an hour or more (longer if they are using public transport from outside Swansea) and the cost of bus tickets (OAPs excepted).

Fair enough, I apologies for casting your views incorrectly in my earlier post. I accept that you believe that Local Government DOES need reforming, but that you think that we need to undo much of what the Labour Government has created.

However, I would like you to give some examples of where any LibDem-controlled Council has inherited a Cabinet model and instituted a different model, such as the all-party Executive Board system. It was in the Swansea LibDems local manifesto for the 2004 elections, but no action on it as yet.
Rene, as you are well aware the regulations to enact any change only came into force within the last year so there was no opportunuty to do anything prior to that time.

It is also the case that the way the regulations are set out mean that the executive-scrutiny split must remain and that any change must have the support of all major parties on the Council plus another extensive consultation process.

Quite clearly this is impractical. You will also be aware that the Liberal Democrats do not run Swansea, it is a coalition. The only way that change could be brought about would be through national legislation.
Peter, parking for the disabled is very bad in Swansea. There just are not enough of them. It is impossible for a disabled person to go anywhere in High street for example unless lucky to street parking which is always scarce. There is no disabled parking in Oxford Street or the Kingsway. No real thought has been put to disabled parking which has driven so many to out of town shopping. Until these problems are sorted then it is very unfair to force the public to try and access government offices in the centre of Swansea.
Just speaking from memory there are disabled parking places off Kingsway behind Marks and Spencer, in the car park off the access road between Portland Street and Union Street, by the old Post Office and in the car park above the YMCA roundabout. There are also disabled parking places in the Oxford Street car park by the Grand Theatre, in the High Street multi-story car park and in the Quadrant and St David's car park. There is also a motability service in the Quadrant.

I receive a lot of representations from disabled access groups but none of them have mentioned this issue to me. There are also Government offices in the City Centre which are already accessed by disabled people.
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