APSE’s recent publication Two Tribes? Exploring the future role of elected members, has proven timely given some of the recent governance challenges that have been thrown at local government.
More than a decade on from modernisation of political management structures, which replaced the existing committee system with a formal cabinet, overview and scrutiny system, one of the main issues emerging from the research is the feeling of disillusionment amongst non-executive elected members, who feel marginalised from real decision making with little influence over issues that affect their local areas.
Some would see this as an opportunity to make arguments for a cull of councillors - suggesting that if there isn’t anything for them to do then get rid of them. My view is that if we believe that democracy is a fundamental principle of our society then why would we want to slip further down the ladder as one of the most underrepresented countries in Western Europe?
With financial pressure leading to severe cuts in services and increasingly complex approaches to delivery mechanisms (including outsourced contracts, arms-length arrangements and multiple partnerships) then surely effective overview and scrutiny of decision making is needed now more than ever.
Would some of the problems now emerging in children’s services have been picked up earlier if overview and scrutiny had been more powerful or more effective? Would the overcharging scandals in some outsourced contracts have occurred if it had been known from the start that there had been elected members with specific responsibility to scrutinise the detail of charges and payments on behalf of council taxpayers? Would the multitude of arms-length arrangements and cross public sector partnerships operating in local government these days be more transparent if there was an increased governance input by skilled advocates?
Whilst executive elected members are being stretched to the limit, their colleagues on the back benches are feeling undervalued and underutilised. Many who believe in local democracy will have marvelled at how the Public Accounts Committee is all powerful in holding not only Government but other public institutions and even big business to account. My view is that those with nothing to fear, would have nothing to fear, from a properly resourced, Margaret Hodge like figure operating at a local level, whatever the colour of rosette.
Fifteen years on from the Local Government Act 2000, it is time for whoever forms the next Government in May to revisit local political structures to ensure effective democratic arrangements are in place. This may go a long way to improving representative democracy and reconnecting local communities to local government.