Political and Constitutional Reform CommitteeWritten evidence submitted by Unlock Democracy

About Us

Unlock Democracy (incorporating Charter 88) is the UK’s leading campaign for democracy, rights and freedoms. A grassroots movement, we are owned and run by our members. In particular, we campaign for fair, open and honest elections, stronger parliament and accountable government, and a written constitution. We want to bring power closer to the people and create a culture of informed political interest and responsibility. For more information please see www.unlockdemocracy.org.uk

Evidence

“Local government is more than the sum of the particular services it provides. It is an essential part of English democratic government.”

The Royal Commission on Local Government in England (the Redcliffe-Maud report), 1969

Unlock Democracy is pleased to have the opportunity to submit evidence to the Committee on an issue that we believe goes to the heart of a functioning and vibrant democracy in the UK. Unlock Democracy is a non-governmental organisation committed to achieving a citizen-based constitutional reform settlement and a modern and balanced democracy in this country. Unlock Democracy’s constitution states that we campaign to “ensure that power is exercised as close to people as is practicable”.

Unlock Democracy believe that a written constitution is the best way to set out and entrench the powers of local and national Government. We support a constitutional convention for the UK as our preferred way forward, but we have always been open to other reforms that bring our ultimate goal forward. We believe that any moves towards codifying the relationship between central and local government could make a genuine contribution towards that goal while refreshing the quality of local democracy throughout Great Britain.

The current party consensus on “localism” is misleading. The localism currently being gifted by central government to local authorities is very limited and may ever well shift political blame for cuts in services that the government itself will make necessary through its own cuts to local government. Meanwhile, local government is just as much a captive of the centre as it was before May, and what has been given can be taken away just as quickly as it has been given.

Central government has the power of life or death over local government. Local government has no constitutional protection against central government. Local authority finances, policies and priorities may all be dictated by central government, which could if it so wished abolish local government altogether. Indeed, there are many who seriously believe that successive governments have in reality already done so in practice. At the very least, taking the Redcliffe-Maud warning into account, it is evident that local government has become less than the sum of its parts—in that it lacks sufficient financial and political discretion to reflect local choice, even in the basic statutory services which are left to its care.

Our view is that the relationship between central and local government urgently needs to be codified to give local government the constitutional protection that it lacks and to guarantee its autonomy. Most comparable countries have independent local government, backed up by constitutional guarantee. The United Kingdom is a signatory to the European Charter of Local Self Government, but our governments show no respect whatever for its stipulations:

Local authorities must have adequate financial resources of their own.

Central government must not undermine local authority powers by administrative actions.

Local authorities should have powers of general competence.

Local authorities should have freedom of choice as to the way in which services are operated and in their internal organisation.

Local authorities must be able to determine the rate of their own taxes.

These stipulations seem to Unlock Democracy to provide the substance for codified constitutional protection for local democracy in England—and for a major challenge to the false rhetoric of localism. Thus we recommend, first, that local authorities must be created in law as independent and sovereign entities in order to guarantee their autonomy. They would then be able to undertake as of right all those duties for which they are elected locally; and they would be free to do whatever is not prohibited by law, turning on its head the present injunction which prohibits them from doing things which are not expressly allowed by law. Local councils, like all other public bodies, would have to perform their duties within a legitimate inspection regime and according to equality and human rights laws.

The current state of affairs is squeezing the life out of local democracy in England. Able people no longer enter local politics in sufficient numbers to bring enterprise and diversity to its work. Local voters do not turn out in sufficient numbers in local elections to express local choice fully and to give local authorities realistic mandates for their policies, and the first-past-the-post electoral systems distorts the party choices they make.

Over the last 40 years, whatever success governments have had nationally, they have delivered neither economic nor social progress at the local level. We have seen short-term finance, continuing cuts in funding, constant interference, distortion of local priorities, a plethora of schemes and bodies to circumvent local democratic decision-making, barely understood by anyone but a new cadre of local professionals.

Virtually every democratic nation and every business has concluded that the current economic complexities are way beyond the capacities of a command economy. They speak, and deliver on, the language of decentralisation, devolution, local budget holding, participation, and team working. Yet for local government, the centre seems stuck in outdated and inefficient command politics.

It is at this point that we wish to enter a proposal for the manner in which any move towards a codified settlement should be conducted. It is not a process that can be dictated and delivered from the centre alone. Unlock Democracy believes that citizens, localities and local authorities should be the driving force behind the shift towards a meaningful localism. We have already identified what should be the substance of a new and independent local government; and we would add that local authorities should be given the power to determine their own electoral arrangements.

In the case of our large Counties and Cities they have populations that mean that in many cases they should be considered Regional rather than Local Authorities. For example Kent, has 1,394,700 people, less than 300,000 fewer than Northern Ireland, and more people than ten US states and four EU member states. Even local authorities with relatively small populations, such as Cornwall with a population of 529,500, have a greater population than Luxemburg, Tasmania and Wyoming.

In the short term, we recommend that the Committee press for the constitutional protection of local government, bringing into effect the devolution of such financial and political powers to the existing local authorities that can be managed.

In the long term, there has to be a re-adjustment of regional and local structures that brings local authorities closer to the localities for which they are responsible; and which recognises regional and local aspirations. Westminster should determine broadly what powers could be delegated, rather than Westminster deciding how large local authority areas should be, and powers they should have. We suggest that existing local authorities, groups of authorities or citizens could propose their own structures and petition the centre. Ultimately the decisions should be put to a referendum in the area concerned.

6 December 2010

Prepared 28th January 2013