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Saturday, July 31, 2010

An illusion of democracy

On first viewing the UK Coalition Government's plan to allow voters the chance to veto large rises in council tax appears to be an attractive one.

The idea is that residents would be asked to choose between the proposed rise and a “shadow budget”, which the council must also prepare within the defined limit. A no vote would leave councils having to refund taxpayers or give a credit at the end of the tax year.

Such a proposal would have a cost of course, not just in conducting the ballot but also in making adjustments to Council Tax bills following the referendum. It also undermines the idea of representative democracy, where Councillors and officers make informed decisions on the basis of information that is so detailed and voluminous that it cannot properly be conveyed to a large body of people is a short period of time. However, that can be overcome by ensuring that the S.151 officer has signed off all the options.

My problem with the proposal is that it is directive and it is limited in its scope. For a start it is imposing a one-size-fits all solution on local councils that prevents them from more effective consultation. If we are to involve taxpayers in decision-making at this level of detail then it is only right that we go out and talk to them properly about it, discussing with them how decisions are reached and why, what the limitations are and what consequences arise from taking a particular pathway. That is an informed choice, not the Pop Idol approach favoured by the government.

Secondly, why are we only offering two options? Some Councils might want to offer more. How does this work where there are multi-tiers of local government, including community councils? Do we have overlapping ballots taking place simultaneously? What are the rules on campaigning? Will Councillors be able to go out on doorsteps to promote a particular scheme or to defend vital but controversial decisions? How different do the two budget schemes have to be? Could a Council get away with presenting false choices? Who polices it? If it is the Electoral Commission then what level of expertise do they have that can stop them having the wool pulled over their eyes on financial matters?

And how do local elections fit into all this? I am certainly signed up to the view that democracy should not end at the ballot box but should be a continuous process of genuine consultation and accountability, but there are other ways of doing that than through referenda. Equally, why should people turn out to vote for local Councillors when they make the important decision themselves as to how much is spent and where?

Finally, if the Government are going to impose this requirement on local government, will they be practising what they preach? Will the Assembly's draft budget be subject to a Wales-wide referendum? Will the UK Government's budget go out to plebiscite too?

There are so many questions that surely it is too early to be enthusiastically embracing this idea. There is so much good practice that can be adopted at a local level that perhaps it is too early to be telling Councils that they have to adopt a particular scheme. Let us have the debate, but also don't allow the Government to close down the options in advance of that discussion.
It's effectively the continuation of capping by another name. Once central government sets the ceiling I doubt if any council would go down the route of a referendum given how little every 1% increase in council tax actually raises. A few years ago Bristol conducted a referendum on the issue of raising council tax to increase spending on education in the city. The council tax increase was rejected by the voters. In a mature democracy councils should be allowed to set what rate they wish and then the voters can give their verdict at the next election. This is yet another example of populist politics which in reality does not address the real issue which is how do you increase the accountability of local government by increasing the amount of revenue raised by each council. At the moment because of the reforms introduced by Mrs. Thatcher and the empty rhetoric of Mr Blair regarding local democracy we have effectively local administration rather than local government.
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