Councillor’s blog: What’s wrong with local government

February 26, 2018

What’s wrong with local government in the UK? Well Kent County Council’s annual budget day offers some pointers, writes our KCC representative, Martin Whybrow.

In the council chamber bubble, there’s the usual petty party politics. It is such an unedifying spectacle for anyone watching from the public gallery or on the webcast. Within an hour or so of the start, KCC leader, Paul Carter, in his usual boorish, ungracious way, had already accused the opposition of ‘disappointment’ if the council manages to improve services and stated that none of the day’s amendments would be passed in the hope that ‘unnecessary debate can be curtailed’.

There are two fundamental problems: a democratic deficit and ever-decreasing funding from central government. Let’s first take the former as it is less obvious to many people.

Democracy, what democracy?

The budget is set by the Tory administration and then debated prior to a vote. The opposition proposed eight amendments and, as per Carter’s promise, all were beaten – every one recording 58 Tory votes against. Not one Tory had the backbone to defy their whip.

This is not because the amendments were bad ones, often the Tories could not do anything other than agree with the sentiments – who could argue with spending on befriending services to reduce social isolation, my amendment for more social workers for Specialist Children’s Services to reduce case loads as per Ofsted’s recommendations, better pay for the lowest earning council staff (amendments brought by myself, the LibDems and Labour), or extra money for the country’s crumbling roads?

All amendments have to be balanced, so must specify where the money will come from. Some late changes meant there was more money available than expected, with KCC proposing to keep more in reserves than planned, thereby providing most of the flexibility for the amendments.

Some or all of the amendments would have created a better budget. But there’s the ‘not invented here’ syndrome. It is surreal: cabinet members who have fought all year to protect their budgets have to stand up in the chamber to explain why they don’t want additional funding.

After five and a half hours of increasingly fractious ‘debate’, the budget was voted through (58 in favour), unchanged from the start of the day.

What needs to change?

You can always tell when the Tories have run out of arguments because they cite the result of the council elections last May. But they must know that they got lucky – if those elections had been four weeks after the general election, rather than four weeks before (when the Maybot was riding high in the polls and the debate was merely how big the Tory majority was going to be) it would be a markedly different council.

Second, the apathy of residents hardly means they have a sweeping mandate to rule. The majority of voters across the county did not bother to exercise their democratic right. In a recent KCC by-election, the turnout was 17 per cent. This is woeful given the county council impacts everyone’s lives, every day, with its remit for roads, children’s and adult social services, waste management, education, libraries, public rights of way, country parks etc.

Third, as replicated in the general election, the political make-up of the council does not reflect the parties’ share of the votes because of the flawed, undemocratic first-past-the-post system. The best way to reconnect voters is to make every vote count through proportional representation, combined with extending the voting age to 16-18 year-olds.

Why is this a problem?

The security of most MPs and councillors leads to complacency and a disregard for voters. Too many elected representatives can do the absolute minimum but still know that when they bowl up for the next election, they will be voted in. It allowed the Tory KCC members to vote through a 15 per cent increase in their own allowance at the second full council meeting after the election (something that, needless to say, appeared nowhere in their manifesto), at a time when we are making further job cuts, when public sector pay is capped at one per cent and when we are cutting front-line services for some of the county’s most vulnerable residents.

They don’t feel they need to be accountable. A perfectly reasonable LibDem motion recently, for instance, to allow half an hour of questions from residents at each county council meeting was predictably defeated. Plenty of KCC ‘members’ (as they refer to themselves, as though it is some sort of gentleman’s club) do not respond to residents and too many sit on multiple councils (‘twin-hatters’) and do not have the time to do justice to each, even if they wanted to.

It understandably puts off people from engaging in politics, including standing for election. I am often in non-political meetings, surrounded by people who would make far better elected representatives than those we have but can’t see any reason to put themselves forwards. Opposition members have little or no power to influence anything of note and even the majority of those in the lead party are on the backbenches and, as demonstrated on budget day, are told how to think and how to vote.

This, combined with the nature of the work, brings another systemic problem – an obvious lack of diversity. It is the one place where I (at 54) feel vaguely young. There are too few women, too little ethnic diversity, too few young people. KCC’s meetings are mostly during the day, in Maidstone, which doesn’t help, but the more local and evening-oriented district and borough councils are often even worse for diversity.

And another thing… austerity

The relentless austerity adds another grim dimension. Everything becomes fire-fighting, there is no scope to innovate, to make proactive decisions, to improve services. Four years of austerity has become indefinite austerity and it doesn’t take a genius (although seems to be beyond government ministers) to see the flaw in that model. Sure enough, Tory-led Northamptonshire County Council has effectively gone bust, with too few reserves to cover expenditure and, like all county councils, burdened with debt. Others will definitely go the same way.

Staff – from front-line services through the back office to senior management – are leaving local government in droves. If you have the option, why would you work in this sort of environment, with never-ending restructuring, the threat of job loss, poor pay but greater workloads (as reflected in so many social workers and foster carers being better off with agencies) and ever-reduced budgets?

Despite Carter’s protestations, front-line services have, of course, been cut. As contract values shrink, so too the services from those providers. KCC itself states that 30 per cent of footpaths are in poor condition, 11,600+ safety barriers are in ‘very poor condition’, so too 3.3 per cent of A-roads, 4.7 per cent of B and C roads and 21.5 per cent of unclassified roads. The maintenance backlog is estimated at £630 million.

The rates that councils can pay for all forms of residential care are now far below market rates so we move towards a two-tier care system, with many homes refusing to take council placements because they have to be so heavily subsidised by private ones.

Social workers are over-stretched and get to spend too little time with the people who need their services (my motion for Specialist Children’s Services was to add resources to start to move the current case load from 23.4 towards Ofsted’s target of 18).

The Local Government Association warnings are ever more frequent and urgent. The fact that increasing numbers of claims against KCC are being upheld by the Local Government Ombudsman could be seen as a sign of the malaise.

This all builds up at the ‘pinch-points’, particularly A&E departments, as well as with society’s ‘safety-nets’ – the voluntary sector (who see increasing demand and reduced grants) and other agencies, such as the police, who end up dealing with increasing numbers of people with mental health issues.

So now what?

This sort of article could be seen as a self-fulfilling prophecy – any reader could be even less inclined to engage with politics as a result. However, bottom-up change is the only way forward, there is too much of a deficit of leadership at the top. Traditional party politics, as shown across the globe, is fragile and can quickly collapse, at which point real change can result.

A council doesn’t have to be dysfunctional. It doesn’t have to have a boorish, confrontational culture. It doesn’t have to be devoid of ideas. Even with little money, it can be a force for positive change. Whatever Carter thinks, it is why I am still here, despite everything, and the same goes for plenty of other councilors, regardless of party. People-power needs to be reignited and then the old-guard can be swept away – something that is long overdue and ever more urgent.

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