Friday, February 25, 2011

Let the Pain Begin

Last week Suffolk County Council voted through its cuts. 1500 jobs are to go but most of the time was taken up with a debate about £175k for lollipop men and women. The Council, in its wisdom, are ceasing their funding for these symbols of community and stability and saying to people that it isn't the state's job to get their kids to school.

For me this is Bad Politics. On the one hand, the Council is trying to engage the public in a conversation about the new contours of responsibility between citizen and state. Let's talk about new approaches is the message. The public come back with 'Sure, but don't cut the funding for road crossing patrols' and the Council, despite thousands of signatures vote them down. All pretty depressing.

What I took from this awful afternoon was two things. One is how the party system is killing local government. Instead of a balanced and measured approach from Councillors that reflects community concern, they all just line up behind their parties and do as they are told. That this will come back and haunt a few of them, sure, but most are in safe seats in a Tory shire. They don't need to listen.

The second is the nature of people in representative roles in local government. The lack of diversity is astonishing. There are no black people in a chamber of 75. Women are fairly thin on the ground. Young people under 40 - hardly any. People in actual paid work - a handful. People with college degrees - perhaps a quarter. People with specialist knowledge - a smattering. This means that officers tend to be the source of most intellectual and managerial drive within the council.

What do we do? I don't know. The party-system means that people who are capable but essentially non-partisan struggle to get onto the council. More independents would be a massive help. So too would be conscious attempts by all parties to find people who are young, non-white and female who can serve. The Council is the only place in my life where, at 41, I feel a bright young thing. That can't be right, surely??


Jelly Jim said...

Some points I can sympathise with there.

The problem that I conclude from how budget cuts are implemented is that, yes, a large number of the public accept the need for cuts to reduce the deficit, but it always seems to be qualified by "... but not to [insert peripheral service here]". Inevitably, there are a variety of services that interest groups don't want to see reviewed. Recently, there was a segment on regional TV news about a pensioners' afternoon dancing club that was being looked at. The sentiment was that "this club is a lifeline. We understand the need for cuts, but just don't cut our club. There are other things that can be cut". Personally, the choices are more stark - should a local authority be tending to core services, or providing everything to everyone?

In the case of my local council, cuts seem to be made because the free-flowing tap of money made available by a tick-box culture is being turned off. It has too many projects, too many people and too much dependence on rattling its begging bowl. Now it is having to learn how to deal with that - and how to be more frugal with other people's money.

As it happens, my local council is run by a 'Conservative' group, however it is in name only. This is where I do not necessarily agree that the party system is causing problems - at least, where I live. There are councillors here who stood for election on the basis that they weren't in the same party as their opponents - not for ideological reasons.

A nearby council has a large group of 'independents', yet they act in unison, too. I think the swarm mentality is an inevitable consequence of people acting in their interests - whether it's personal (if they're selfish) or political (I would suggest that you're lucky if you have councillors who are bright enough to pander to their core vote, rather than council officers!).

I definitely agree with you about the lack of real talent in local democracy. Locally, many councillors are retired, ex-public sector or friends and family of other councillors. We have few people who have real experience in business or managing people and processes. Few of them can relate to the world beyond our town. Our council leader has to have council staff print his emails because he can't/won't use a computer!

I don't think that there is one main problem with local democracy. There are many I can think of and it would be hard to know where to start. My own feelings though, are that the perception of inertia that local authorities ooze is a real turn-off for anybody interested in 'getting things done'. Some days I feel that I would love the opportunity to represent and help people and organisations in my neighbourhood, but the endless committees and meetings, the relatively low remunerations (circa £6k for a unitary authority!) and the feeling that, really, there's very little power invested in elected representatives who are increasingly beholden to unelected officers, just makes me think that I'm better off concentrating on looking after things where I have more control, like my business.

As for 'aesthetic' diversity on councils... It's not something that matters to me. I don't care that there are X number of white people, X number of brown people and X number of whatever else. If parties had their own admissions policies that prevented particular types of ethnicity or the like, then that would seriously bother me (although I still believe that you can't legislate for stupidity and that if a party really wants to do that as part of their own politics, then it's up to them). As it is, there are plenty of aesthetically diverse candidates - ultimately, though, it's up to the electorate about who they choose to elect and sit in chambers.

Jelly Jim said...

Hmm... Didn't realise how much I'd written there! Brevity - not my strong point.

Public Strategist said...

A lot of this is to do with having to make decisions at different levels and with different scopes. "Of course there have to be cuts, but not my lollipop lady" is a perfect example of an absolute answer crashing in to an unavoidably relative question. I wrote about that in a different context some time ago - before the cuts - but I think it's still relevant to the problem you describe.