What did the Handforth Parish Council reveal about local democracy to those that don’t follow it closely?

And what could or should change as a result?

The exchanges at a seemingly anonymous parish council meeting up in Cheshire caught the attention of the social media world outside local democracy politics, and went global, making an internet legend of Jackie Weaver of the Cheshire Association of Local Councils, while the Monitoring Officer at Cheshire East District Council had to read (or write) the equivalent of the Riot Act to members of the parish council over a number of issues set out in this letter.

“The internet is watching” – as presumably are media agents everywhere offering reality TV stardom./ notoriety to some participants and panto-style villainy for others.

“Should all meetings be virtual, or should we do away with Local Government?”

asks legal commentator David Allen Green in his blogpost here.

Tony Blair’s Labour Government almost tried to do the latter when he came to power in 1997 – or rather created a series of institutions that to all intents and purposes bypassed local councils in order to create a structure that was directly accountable to ministers and could ‘hit the ground running’ without having to be troubled with the worst that town halls could throw at him. Even though the term came of parlance under their own previous governments, The Tories made a big thing of slashing the size of the state in an assault on the ‘Quangocracy’ in the run up to the 2010 General Election.

“What is a Quango?”

A “Quasi-Autonomous Non-Governmental Organisation”

And they can take up many forms.

as this document from 2016 explains following the cull of organisations by the Coalition Government.

“How did we get to here?”

Essentially that’s something which maps the transition from a monarch ruling by brute force, to the present day – passing through various transition points such as:

The route of political and municipal/local government progress happened piecemeal, through a series of Acts of Parliament wonderfully tabulated at the end of the book A Century of Municipal Progress 1835-1935, which contains a series of articles and essays by the big (male) names of the interwar era.

After the Second World War, the size of Central Government had increased tremendously. Furthermore, there was a socialist party in office that was more than willing and able to make use of it. This in part explains why the National Health Service was established as an institution rather than providing further funding for local councils to pay local hospitals to cover the existing institutions.

Take the old Addenbrooke’s Hospital above – photo from Britain From Above. Before the NHS, a sizeable contribution towards the Hospital’s budget came from local councils in and around the town.

Above – from the British Newspaper Archive.

It is quite conceivable that had Churchill won the 1945 General Election, the push towards universal free healthcare following Beveridge’s report would have been irresistible politically, and that their route of financing it would have been through local councils in return for – as suggested in Cambridge in 1939, having a much larger presence on the governing bodies of hospitals.

The advantages and limits of the centralised state

One of the big advantages of centralisation from a ministerial perspective is that it enables them to make widespread changes across the country irrespective of who is in control of which local councils. With the ability to table legislation in Parliament and get it through, a minister can simply include clauses directing a local council to act in a specific way if they are seen to be dragging their feet or underperforming. In town planning, ministers have powers to take control of individual planning applications from local councils. In order to avoid being responsible for every planning application in the country, ministers publish criteria on which they consider whether they should take such control. Interestingly, one planning application that has been in the news lately is the proposed Whitehaven new coal mine in Cumbria. The decision to approve was granted by Cumbria County Council, and ministers at the Ministry of Housing declined to intervene, despite the appeals of environmentalists.

The concept of having a Whitehall department administering and deciding on planning applications probably fills most civil servants with horror. One of the reasons why the regional network of Government Offices was created in the 1990s was to bring some of the decisions taken in London out to the regions. Unfortunately it didn’t work out that way, and the regional offices never really reached their true potential. Local councils resented being told what to do by ‘unelected bureaucrats’ (who were civil servants working for ministers rather than people in a quango working towards a chief executive), and Central Government didn’t really rate what the regions did, nor did they really know how to get the best out of them.

David Allen Green writes:

“One problem of local government is lack of interest. People, it would seem, can only bear so much democracy. The turnout in local government is lower than parliamentary elections.”

Law & Policy Blog, 06 Feb 2021

Turnout and lack of candidates & engagement is not a new thing. The British Newspaper Archive is full of reports from council meetings covering the best part of 200 years worth of council meetings. Uncontested seats, low turnouts, sparsely-attended council meetings – they are all there. This is not a modern phenomenon.

I’ve come up with my own suggestions using the example of Cambridgeshire, noting that the last comprehensive overhaul of local government in England that had a significant research and evidence-base behind it was started in the late 1960s & completed in the mid-1970s. The structures, powers, and boundaries are largely the same – even in a world of ‘metro mayors’. Given changes in population, communications technology, and social values, it is beyond time for an overhaul. It’s coming up to half a century.

Major barriers significantly discouraging people from getting involved in democracy.

Changes to the internal machinery of democracy can only go so far. There are bigger, social and economic issues that need addressing at the same time.

Hatred in society and online

You don’t need me to go into much detail on this. If you are reading this blogpost online you are a social media user by definition. Why would anyone put themselves up for election knowing they risked facing a torrent of abuse for doing so? (Which then leads onto questions on why ministers seem unable to stop the abuse, and how much of the abuse is coming not from within our towns & cities, but from hostile states and troll farms?)

Time in the face of competing pressures

  • Long commute?
  • Children and caring responsibilities?
  • Running a voluntary organisation?
  • Working very long hours anyway?
  • Snowed under with bills and debts?
  • Taking an evening class or doing part-time study on top of a full time job?

All of these things can mean people simply do not have the time to commit to getting involved in local democracy. That does not mean they do not have the aptitude or attitude to get involved. But when you look at how dense some of the papers are for these meetings, alongside the quantity of them, how many people have the patience to study them in detail? Take the Greater Cambridge Partnership papers hosted by Cambridgeshire County Council in October 2020. Over 400 pages of meeting papers. To get an idea of what meetings – including asking public Qs can be like, see this video playlist from 2016 at Shire Hall – and note the challenging acoustic of the council chamber.

We also used to have a culture of producing and reading books about how the institutions of the state functioned. It started just before WWII and continued until the 1980s. Below are a handful of examples.

It’s not just time – it’s also about how secure a person feels about where they live.

  • Working irregular/insecure hours?
  • Living in temporary/unstable accommodation?

With hindsight I sometimes wonder why during my university days I didn’t get more involved in local democracy in Brighton. But then the relationships between too many of the people involved at the time (This pre-dated the Green surge) put me off. One of the few politicians from the time I remember with any fondness was the Green Party’s candidate for Hove in 2001, Anthea Ballam.

But when you’re moving around every year, living in accommodation that doesn’t always meet the standards required by law (which means it negatively impacts on your health) and not getting the support you both need and are entitled to, getting involved in local democracy is one of the last things on your mind.

Which is why for me it explains why we see very few high profile “Register to vote” campaigns coming from the Conservative Party or their supporting movements and campaign groups.

One of the things that was prominent in the Biden/Harris campaign in the US General Election was the role that Black Women across the USA played in both registering people to vote, and then getting out that vote both as postal votes and also on polling day – in the face of extraordinary levels of gerrymandering and intimidation.

In the UK, we’re told that the next round of boundary changes will favour the Conservatives – already in power with a large majority. This is despite the fact that the current system and seat distribution gives Conservatives 56% of the seats with 44% of the votes. But First-Past-The-Post is a winner-takes-all system. My preferred system is the one they have for the London Assembly – the Mixed Member System / Additional Member System. Interestingly, one of the very few places where the existing system puts the Conservatives at a strong disadvantage is right here in Cambridge. Their party votes are spread out thin across the city, so despite polling a minimum 8,000 votes at general elections, it doesn’t translate into council seats. Have a look here by Messrs Edkins & Rosenstiel.

Some of the changes needed are political/institutional, and others are economic/social

Politicians can make some very big changes to the structures of our institutions of state to make it easier for more people to get involved. At the same time there are some big changes that we need to make to our lifestyles – ones that politicians can also influence but perhaps less directly. And some of them involve dealing with persistently challenging policy areas (eg housing) that also have massive and wealthy vested interests (large property owners, developers, financial institutions) whose narrow economic interests are not favoured by such changes.

Following the general election of 2019 there was inevitably a huge amount of despondency that enveloped left, liberal, green and progressive circles. Yet earlier today I stumbled across a copy of a letter from one of Cambridge’s greatest civic heroes of the early-mid 1800s. It was Ebenezer Foster, the former Mayor of Cambridge. Writing in 1823 he signed off a letter to the staunchly Conservative-supporting Cambridge Chronicle, who were campaigning against reforms. Foster wrote:

“…yet we shall always find large and increasing class of political associates in this county, who will brave alike the tempest of Ministerial wrath and popular clamour; who will still advocate the gradual yet complete reformation of the House Commons, and descry every corrupt practice of our executive Government.”

Ebenezer Foster, 28 Feb 1823/BNA, in Lost Cambridge 06 Feb 2021.

Reads just as powerfully today as it did in 1823.

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