Friday, 11 January 2019

Britain's sham democracy


The Daily Mail reports today that "Redundancy packages for two executives at the centre of council mergers will cost taxpayers almost £1million. Nine local authorities in Dorset will combine to form just two in April.

Senior staff losing their jobs are being handed payouts which vastly exceed a cap on the public sector’s so-called ‘golden parachutes’. Jane Portman, the managing director of Bournemouth Borough Council, is to receive a pay and pension redundancy package of £473,000, it was announced yesterday. Debbie Ward, chief executive of Dorset County Council, has been awarded the same amount after leaving her post in November".

You would think this would be bigger news, but it's not big news because this is run of the mill. I've been keeping an eye on this exact sort of story for more than ten years now and this is only newsworthy by way of the figures involved being marginally higher than usual. It occasionally makes the news but generally doesn't make it past above local coverage. As offensive as it is, nobody has lifted a finger to do anything about it. 

These sums of themselves are offensive in that nobody in local government management is worth that much and especially not for midranking authorities in the rural shires. But when you account for the fact that council at the bottom end is still more than £1000, that's hundreds of households threatened with bailiffs and imprisonment if they don't cough up to finance these parasites.

Some 2.2 million people were visited by bailiffs in the last two years. Citizens Advice have found that one in three people have seen bailiffs breaking the rules, 40 per cent have suffered intimidation and there has been a 24 per cent increase in problems since the Government’s reforms were introduced in 2014. The reforms themselves did nothing to address the problem of bailiffs being self-regulating and accountable to nobody, further entrenching the rip off fee system.
 
What's interesting in respect of these grotesque payouts is the circumstances where Parliament, without seeking local consent, has passed legislation for Dorset's nine councils to merge into two unitary authorities. Under the plans, due to come into effect in April, Bournemouth, Poole and Christchurch would merge. A second council would be formed from Dorset County Council, East Dorset, North Dorset, Purbeck, Weymouth & Portland and West Dorset. Why council mergers go anywhere near Westminster for approval escapes me.

Christchurch Borough Council formally opposed the plans and launched a legal challenge but in a joint statement, the leaders of the other eight councils described the passing of the legislation as "an historic day for local government" in the county. "These two new councils will have a stronger, co-ordinated voice when bidding for government funding and investment for things like road improvements, housing, schools and economic regeneration; the things that benefit an area for all those living within it".

This is very much part of the problem with our so called "local" government. We are seeing them merging to become corporate scale entities more akin with regional development agencies than democratic units. Local government is now structured for its own convenience, further excluding public participation, creating greater distance from those it serves and gearing itself entirely for chasing central government grants. Local government is therefore not financed locally, therefore it does not answer to local people. It simply does as it is told to meet the funding criteria.

The consequence of this is managerialism where complaints, concerns and requests vanish into vast anonymised systems where nobody is ever accountable and issues are simply given a number and farmed out to subdivisions and contractors. There is no applied local knowledge or institutional memory. The police service is going much the same way.

Were there any genuine participation where the public themselves had authority over local budgets, not only would there never be approved for these grotesque payouts, the job of town clerk would never have become an executive role in the first place. Instead, our remote system of government has become a remote, corporatised quangocracy involving vast sums of money over which we have no say.

This is particularly an issue here in Bristol with a mega council of its own, where the remedy was thought to be the introduction of an elected mayor to give it a figleaf of democracy. What we end up with though, is just another layer of cronyism appropriating funding for their pet vanity projects, oblivious to the fact that this money actually has to come from somewhere - and that somewhere is us. We can vote the mayor out but the problem is... we have to vote another in. 

If there is a lesson from Brexit it is that people feel they have no control over how they are governed. Government is something done to you rather than anything you have an active say in. The EU was part of the problem in that our mega "local" authorities have to divert funds to pursue targets, quotas and policies imposed on the UK by Brussels. Brexit brings some remedy to that, but if the public cannot define their own authorities and dictate its priorities then it is not democracy, local or otherwise.

If the drivers of Brexit are to be addressed then this is central to the problem. We need real local democracy, yet the process is in reverse. Not only are we losing control over local services, we are depoliticising them, turning citizens into cash cows to feed the voracious appetites and egos of greedy executives and and the circling private sector vultures surrounding any corporate scale enterprise.

Depressingly, there is little recognition of what needs to be done. The modern Labour party is obsessed with renationalising things for its own sake, mainly for ideological reasons and having total state control over them. It is a solution to no problem.  

What was fundamentally objectionable about the EU was that it mistrusts democracy by design, where the "democratic" arms of the system serve only as a figleaf for a largely managerialist enterprise. Britain seems to have adopted that culture of governance wholesale where power travels ever further toward the centre.

Though we see token calls for more localism and more consultation, it tends to result in yet another tier of elected dictators like Andy Burnham running their own little fiefdoms inside merged authorities nobody really asked for. Notionally it creates a "a stronger, co-ordinated voice when bidding for government funding" but the North of England will still be running dilapidated pacer trains ten years from now. 

This is perhaps the most toxic legacy of the EU. It is so long since we had anything close to meaningful democracy that nobody under fifty remembers what it looks like. Nobody recalls that parishes had their own dedicated officials, policemen and public servants. The popular perception of democracy now is that every once in a while we go out to uselessly vote for a representative whose powers are limited. So when we ask for more democracy, central government takes that to mean more empty voting rituals.

True democracy is when the people have power over their institutions and a real say in the big decisions. As we have it now, our local authorities are merged without a referendums, council taxes go up without referendums and we have no say in what we pay our local public servants. Party politics on a local basis is just a flag indicator as to the political bent of the candidate. We do not vote for local manifestos, and with massive councils districts have to compete for their priorities to be addressed. They cannot raise their own finance to manage their own affairs.

Democracy in Britain is a sham. It is not even worthy of the name. We may have ended the occupation of the Brussels machine but the mentality lives on. Brexit may well be a reason to cheer but it only removes some of the obstacles to meaningful change. To go the rest of the way, we face a longer, harder battle. Elected bureaucrats are every bit as bad as unelected ones. We need to rebuild democracy ground up and put Westminster back in its box.

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