Local authorities should be the cornerstone of local democracy, but they are failing to respond to a changing society. This post, and those immediately following, aim to show at least some of the reasons for this failure and to illustrate the scale of change needed in local governance without which initiatives from others in the community won’t fulfil their potential.
The voting figures really do tell it all. If our local politics was seen as important by the wider public, we wouldn’t have low turnouts in elections. From 2010 to 2014 the turnout for Exeter City Council elections ranged from 31% to 43%; in 2015 the coincidence of a general election on the same day raised turnout to 69%.
Research following the 2010 general election found that the two most commonly stated reasons for not voting were that people didn’t believe their vote would make any difference, and that parties and candidates were all the same . The Hansard Society’s latest annual survey of political engagement found that only one-fifth of respondents felt they had some influence over local decision-making, a record low for the survey .
This massive disconnection between people and mainstream politics is not news. Exeter City Council is, with a few exceptions, competent and efficient. Its staff are helpful and as open as they feel able to be. But, like so many other local authorities, it fails to capture popular enthusiasm for its role: it’s dull and unimaginative. Perhaps that shouldn’t be surprising, since expenditure cuts have reduced staff numbers to the point where those remaining have their work cut out to deliver essential business – space for creativity is at a premium.
Yet that is far from being the whole explanation for the great disconnect. I suggest that the causes lie in three overlapping factors, shown below (and there may well be others).
- The tendency to develop policies and plans behind closed doors
- The deadening effect of traditional party politics.
- The weakness of local authorities in relation to other players.
Most Exeter City Council meetings open to the public start at 5.30pm. A colleague and I wanted to attend a meeting of the Council’s Executive – the committee of councillors responsible for direction of the various Council services – and turned up at the Civic Centre about 5.15pm. The main access door was firmly locked, so we walked around the building looking for another way in. No luck. We went back and banged loudly on the main door, which eventually brought a member of staff to allow us in. We were asked to wait in the reception area. Shortly after the meeting was due to start an officer appeared through a doorway and shouted out “Are there any public here?”. We were then shepherded into the committee room, a bit like prisoners entering the dock.
Is this the behaviour of an organisation that actively welcomes people to its meetings? .
Perhaps this is a trivial illustration, but it is consistent with the behaviour of the City Council over a wide range of its business. Despite protestations of openness, the reverse is more often true. Some specifics:
- The website does indeed contain papers and minutes for all council and committee meetings that are open to the public, which is most of them for most of the time. But what you see on the website is generally the finished product. The proposal – for a strategy, policy, project or whatever – has been worked on by officers, consulting other parts of the council and other organisations – the “partners” – as necessary, and is the finished product to be approved by councillors. These internal processes are invisible to outsiders. Papers for decision always end with a section headed “Any other options?”. Some officers make use of this, but key papers, particularly finance ones, invariably state “None”.
- The culture is to keep as much of this background activity away from outsiders as is possible. There is currently a lively public debate about whether too much of the city centre is being handed over to public-built “luxury” student accommodation. The Council has no policy for managing this, other than to let the market lead, though they recognised an emerging problem and commissioned an academic expert to write a report on the options. This has been available since the end of last year, but only councillors and officers have access to it.
- Another example is the way in which the City Council, along with other local authorities in the south-west, responded to the government’s proposal for devolution. The first most of us knew of what was afoot was when the consortium of councils issued a press release announcing that their devolution bid prospectus had been sent to Whitehall. It gives the unelected Local Enterprise Partnership significant influence over what ought to be democratically-led decisions about spending, and envisages some sort of “combined authority” over Devon and Somerset to exercise the powers devolved from central government. No one ever asked the people of Exeter, and beyond, whether we want to be part of such an arrangement.
- Even at the published level, there’s a climate of non-disclosure. Council minutes of meetings do not identify councillors other than lead members. So we read that “a member” said this, and “another member” said that, but we don’t know who they are. It would be interesting to know, for example, the identity of the councillor who said that “councillors were elected to represent their residents and the majority of the public were too busy to attend Council meetings” . I’ll come back to him or her in a later post.
- The Council points to its readiness to consult on key issues. They did indeed carry out an excellent public consultation in 2014 to help them decide where to make budget cuts . But all too many recent consultations have been tick-box affairs, or events held during working hours when many people cannot attend. Alternative options are never canvassed. The key point is that people are being asked to say what they think, often simplistically, about a proposal that has been worked on so much behind closed doors that what the public think has ceased to have relevance.
The Labour party has controlled the City Council since 1995, though the period 2004-2012 was one in which Labour ran a minority administration. They are tired and short of new ideas. The Corbyn effect has had no visible impact on Labour councillors’ views, and the city’s MP, Ben Bradshaw elected in 1997, is openly hostile to his leader. In next month’s elections Labour’s vote-winning proposal to solve Exeter’s transport problems is to set up a “Transport Board”, to join all the other boards and committees trying to do the same thing. Exeter Labour has gone stale.
Had the Conservatives or LibDems been in power for a similar period, it is highly likely that they would exhibit the same symptoms.
The staleness is not surprising. Local political parties are run by small groups of people, with a limited pool to draw on for elected office. It is in any case by no means self-evident that we need party politics in local government at all. A cohort of elected independent thinkers could bring much-needed radical thinking about policies and, crucially, how the council relates to the people it is there to serve. Those who follow politics have all seen examples of councillors voting in line with the party whip against their personal judgement or their constituents’ views.
The party system inhibits original thinking about the needs of the local area. Local parties are constrained by their party’s national policies, which means that politically acceptable solutions to problems remain within that central box. Thinking outside the box is not encouraged, at a time when the world has never been more in need of new radical policies.
Local government is weak. Central governments from the Thatcher administrations on have diminished its responsibilities, constrained its funding, and forced it to privatise public services. Local discretion is seen by Whitehall as a way of passing the buck when things go wrong, not as an essential means of making sense of national policies on the ground. County and unitary councils are about to be stripped of their schools, and district councils like Exeter have had their planning functions corroded by the developer-is-always-right approach of the National Planning Policy Framework (as serially amended by the Chancellor). Nationally-enforced reductions in council housing rents will in time make it impossible for a council to afford to hold a housing stock.
It’s fair to lay much of the blame for a council’s weakness at central government’s door. Yet local authorities have lain back as the punishments are dished out to them. Developers generally get what they want, unless the officers can find a cast-iron case against: councillors are made fearful by the cost of an appeal by a developer to the Secretary of State against a rejected planning application, or developers simply threaten not to proceed. Privatised services reduce accountability to the public they serve, since the provider’s accountability is to the contract, and nothing else.
What councils like Exeter have failed to do is to rally popular support behind them. Central government and its friends in big business ride roughshod over councils because they believe that most people don’t care. And most people don’t care because councils have failed to engage – really engage – their communities in what they do and the decisions they take
Instead, Exeter City Council regards us as “customers”. There is a lead councillor for “customer access”, the front office of the Civic Centre is the “Customer Service Centre”. This language reduces what should be the pivotal democratic authority in the city to the level of a shop. Do councillors really see themselves as store managers, whose relationships with the city’s people have become transactions?
This loss of recognition that people are central to everything a council does shows up in various ways. I sat through a Devon County Council committee discussion on traffic congestion in Exeter. Traffic jams at a key roundabout was a major concern, and the “problem” was seen as the presence of a nearby pedestrian crossing. There seemed to be no recognition that the real problem was the cars, not the people. This was a committee whose remit was to deal with highways and traffic, and so their views were shaped by that perspective.
When councils get it wrong, they are further weakened. Exeter City Council recently consulted on a proposal for a Public Spaces Protection Order, the effect of which would be to make it easier to clear homeless people off the city’s central streets, presumably because their presence didn’t fit the image the Council likes to present to inward investors and tourists. A wave of well-informed criticism followed, putting the Council firmly on the back foot, so much so that the proposal has been kicked into the long grass. The Council looks stupid. Why didn’t they judge the public mood before putting the plan forward?
So what next?
This is not a hopeless situation, as I will suggest in later posts. But first, we need to be clear about what needs fixing. This post has suggested three key issues; the next post will give a practical example of how the three issues converged, in the debacle surrounding the redevelopment of the Exeter Bus and Coach Station site.
 Research by Survation. See a summary at http://survation.com/apathy-in-the-uk-understanding-the-attitudes-of-non-voters/
 Hansard Society, Audit of Political Engagement 12, 2015, page 7, available at http://www.auditofpoliticalengagement.org/media/reports/Audit-of-Political-Engagement-12-2015.pdf
 The City Council could learn from Devon County Council, a short mile away, where people are welcome, armed with a pass but unescorted, to go to the committee room before the meeting starts, to have a cup of tea or coffee there and chat with any officers or councillors who may be around.
 During a debate on whether the public should be allowed to speak at council meetings. Exeter City full Council meeting, 24 February 2015, item 12. http://committees.exeter.gov.uk/ieListDocuments.aspx?CId=114&MId=4087&Ver=4
 More detail in the second part of my post at https://petercleasby.com/2014/12/11/how-to-fix-a-consultation/