Saturday, June 16, 2007
The Tory solution
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 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.
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.
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.
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)
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.
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.
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.
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.