“The national calamity we don’t hear about – the death of local democracy”

‘We cannot survive as we are beyond this next financial year. There is no money. I am not crying wolf. I never cry wolf.” So says the Conservative leader of Torbay council, in Devon: a local authority that delivers the full range of services but can no longer function at even the most basic level.

After years of bone-crunching austerity, by 2020 it will be faced with another £12m of cuts – so the most obvious option is to downgrade itself to a district council, hand over its most essential work to the bigger Devon county council, and hope for the best. Whether this will improve anything is an interesting question: since 2010, in real terms, Devon’s funding from government has been cut by 76%.

Northamptonshire’s council has already effectively gone bankrupt. Somerset, Norfolk and Lancashire are reportedly faced with comparable problems. And in our big cities, similar stories have been unfolding for years, as the great cuts machine set in motion by George Osborne in 2010 continues to grind away, while both costs and demand for basic services increase.

Bristol faces a £108m funding gap by 2023, and is cutting services accordingly. Having already hacked well over £200m from its budgets, Leeds is in the midst of making £38m of savings in a single year. In Newcastle, by 2020, insiders reckon that over half the city council’s spending will in effect have been slashed within a decade. Many authorities are putting up council tax, but that doesn’t come close to easing the economies they have to make. And the results are obvious: less comprehensive child protection, less dependable care for older people, fewer children’s centres, more rubbish in the streets – and yet more dire damage to a social fabric that has been pulled apart for nearly a decade.

Why is this national calamity so under-reported?

Some of the answer is about the continuing tragedy of Brexit. Political journalists who work themselves into a lather about this or that item of Westminster gossip hear the dread phrase “local government” and glaze over. It is some token of Whitehall neglect that confusion still surrounds the Tory plan to abolish the core grant given from central government to local authorities and make them completely dependent on business rates and council tax. All told, senior politicians routinely treat non-Westminster people as a mere annoyance: last week, for instance, it was revealed that though the government has commissioned an updated official assessment of the likely effects of Brexit on Greater Manchester, it will not let the people who run that part of the country see it.

There have been times when the UK’s deep tendency to centralise has been momentarily held back, as evidenced by the devolution to Scotland, Wales and London, and Osborne’s encouragement of the rebirth of city regions and the arrival of elected “metro mayors”. But even in those cases – let alone when it comes to the counties, boroughs and districts where devolution remains off-limits – Whitehall’s habit of clinging to power and the effects of austerity have got in the way. Moreover, as evidenced by the calamities that have befallen health and education, particularly in England, politics has tended to revolve around grand schemes authored by politicians who have Bonapartist ideas of controlling everything from the centre – which, in the midst of a society growing more complex and unpredictable by the day, are usually bound to fail.

Yet here is a remarkable thing. For all their travails, some people in charge of councils are among the most inventive, energetic politicians I have ever met. Figures such as Manchester’s Richard Leese, Newcastle’s Nick Forbes, Leeds’s Judith Blake and Plymouth’s recently re-elected Tudor Evans – all Labour people – are located where their policies play out, deeply familiar with local nuances and complexities, and able to move fast. (Weirdly, they are now under attack from their own side: the people at the top of Labour have plans to end the system whereby council leaders are elected by other councillors, and impose one in which their selection would be in the hands of the party’s newly expanded membership – a brazenly factional move that may well be illegal, misunderstands how councils are deeply collective bodies, and threatens constant tension and disruption, just when the people concerned are in the midst of their most difficult era in living memory.)

Meanwhile, at the other end of the local government hierarchy, an experiment in participatory, non-party “flatpack democracy” in my adopted hometown of Frome, Somerset, highlights the revived belief in the power of truly local government, as does the related rebirth of town and parish councils in other parts of the country.

How would such examples of energy and creativity become the norm? Everything ought to start with an acknowledgment that the system is now an incomprehensible mess. It amounts to a random archipelago of town, parish, district, county, city and borough councils, new city regions, police forces and elected commissioners often based on completely different geographies, local enterprise partnerships and an array of other bodies – not to mention an increasingly centralised education system, and a health service now so complicated that very few people understand it. All this feeds into the sense of popular bafflement that defines a country that is simultaneously the UK’s most populous component but also its most powerless: this, it seems to me, is the essence of the modern English condition.

Any political project with radical intentions ought to consider the contrastingly clear, comparatively simple models in most of western Europe: the Spanish structure of municipalities, provinces and regional “autonomous communities” isn’t a bad place to begin. Learning from such examples should lead on to genuine financial independence for councils, based on a decent share of income tax and the ability to raise funds for big projects through bond issues, and a drastic redrawing of the responsibilities of national and local government – not least in the area of basic public services.

Council cuts are putting the vulnerable at risk, Tory peer says
If the NHS is to survive, it is going to have to decisively shift from treatment towards prevention, something that can only be organised at the social grassroots. It is high time we broke up the dysfunctional Department for Work and Pensions, and handed the administration of most benefits and the jobcentre system to local actors who know what actually works. Education urgently needs to be re-localised. If our troubled high streets are to find a new role, it will be people living next to them who will have to be given the power to find it. To even begin to solve the national housing crisis, we will also have to allow local, city and regional politicians to take the initiative. So, we should pay them properly, and allow them the parental leave, holidays, pensions and sick pay that most of them currently do without.

Across the board, we need to leave behind the lingering fantasy that our fate is wholly in the hands of national politicians who can somehow blow the dust off the failed institutional machinery of the 20th century and save us. That world is gone, and its passing ought to be marked with a collective recognition that at the point when councils ought to be in the midst of revival and reinvention, they are actually being killed. God knows, Britain is now well used to the politics of self-harm, but how amazingly stupid is that?”


Will EDDC’s new open-plan HQ improve productivity? Probably not!

“In the cartoon strip Dilbert, the boss starts a meeting by pondering a classic dilemma of modern working life. “We’re trying to decide if it’s better to have an open-plan office with too many distractions to be productive,” he says, “or soul-crushing cubicles that will make every employee envy the dead.”

There is important new evidence that could help him in his decision. While cubicles might still be soul-crushing, it turns out that open-plan offices do not — as many advocates argue — actually increase human contact. Instead, a study has found that in an open-plan office, far from being distracted by each other, we create virtual walls. We meet each other far less and communicate by email far more.

This is bad news for one of the most popular fads in office design. One of the chief arguments in favour of open-plan offices has always been that they increase “collective intelligence” by forcing people to meet each other.

When two large companies, which have been kept anonymous, made the shift from cubicles to open plan, researchers took the opportunity to test the theory. For a study in the journal Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B, they placed devices on employees that measured where they were standing, whether they were talking and who they were talking to. They also recorded their volume of email and instant messaging use. The results were unambiguous. By looking at a three-week period before the change, and comparing it with a three-week period three months after, they found that face-to-face interaction in the open-plan offices plummeted by 70 per cent.

There was a corresponding rise in email and instant messaging communication. Ethan Bernstein, from Harvard Business School, said that he did not know what to expect when he began the study. “On the one hand, it is hard to believe that people would not have a more vibrant and interactive experience when they work in an open office,” he said. “The sociology of it is clear: ‘proximity breeds interaction’.

“On the other hand, I’ve spent enough time on the Tube at rush hour to see that being packed together doesn’t necessarily lead to interaction.”

He said that the research seemed to show that precisely this paradigm was at play — that when people had too little privacy they were more likely to try to compensate in other ways.

“Look around open-plan offices and you can see why this might be,” he said. “People put on huge headphones to avoid distraction. They stare intently at their screens because they know people are watching and want to look busy. Then people looking at them from across the room see someone working intently and don’t want to interrupt. So they send an email instead.”

Source:The Times (pay wall)

“How to maintain high ethical standards in local government: a perspective on the Committee on Standards in Public Life’s review so far”

Professor Colin Copus is a specialist advisor to the Committee on Standards in Public Life’s review into local government ethical standards. He writes here in a personal capacity:

“As academic advisor to the Committee on Standards in Public Life’s review into ethical standards in local government, I’ve been reflecting on the evidence I’ve heard so far.

The aim of the review is to test the robustness of the current system for maintaining high standards of public behaviour in local government. It is not a hatchet-job on councillors or intended to identify a problem where there is not one. Rather, the review will assess evidence to enable a judgement to be made about what, if any, changes are required to the current regime to ensure the maintenance of the highest ethical standards in local government.

My impression so far is that there are two competing themes emerging that pose a challenge to anyone considering how best to create the environment for strong ethical behaviour in local government. Those themes result in the question: do we nationalise or do we localise ethical standards in local government?

The danger in any review in local government is for rose-coloured spectacles to temper one’s view of past systems. It is nowhere more the case than in the ethical standards debate.

The evidence received by the Committee so far has highlighted some difficulties with the effectiveness of localising standards that came with the abolition of the standards board and the past regime associated with the board by the Localism Act 2011.

Concern has also been expressed about placing control over the ethical regime (and code of conduct) with councils themselves and about the apparent weaknesses in the sanctions available to councils when dealing with ethical and behavioural issues.

Moreover, the review has heard that local codes of conduct can result in councillors who sit on county, district and parish councils at the same time potentially being subject to three different codes. We do not yet know how widespread this issue is or if it generates regular and intractable problems for councillors and officers.

But the review has also heard that there is a recognition that centralising and nationalising ethical standards can result in a system that is remote, anonymous, lacking in appreciation of local differences of culture, tradition and behaviour.

Nationalising the system also prevents flexibility and responsiveness to specific local issues and at worse can result in councillors feeling on ‘trial’ and subject to a remote and bureaucratic system, which in itself can damage local democracy.

The issue of sanctions also looms large as does the role of independent input or oversight of the local process of assessing standards issues.

Sanctions pose a particular problem, not least because under the current arrangements, a party in power may be tempted to misuse their majority when imposing sanctions, but also because there is a line between what is appropriate for councils to be able to require and impose as sanctions and what is appropriate that the electorate themselves have at their disposal.

The question of sanctions is closely tied to that of oversight: even the power to suspend councillors from committees, council meetings or council premises and restrict resources for a short while may be subject to misuse. Robust safeguards and rights of appeal must, therefore, be available to councillors whose behaviour is not the real problem – but instead find themselves the subject of a complaint when they are an effective and vocal opponent of the ruling administration.

We also do not yet know how widespread such a problem may be. It is clear that the issue of sanctions, the system by which they are imposed and independent oversight and involvement, will be a key theme of the Committee’s assessment of the evidence in this review.

The hazard with any ethical regime – local or national – is how the political parties in local government respond to that regime.

Given that over 90 per cent of all councillors in England are from the Conservative and Labour parties and the Liberal Democrats, the temptation to use a set of rules and regulations designed to control councillors’ behaviour for party political advantage or to silence councillors from other parties, is considerable.

Any ethical regime must not provide a system that can be misused for party advantage or by officers to restrain troublesome councillors as both can damage free speech within local democracy.

It must also be remembered that ethical standards in English local government are among the highest across Europe and that results in a commitment by the overwhelming majority of councillors to public service and the public wellbeing.

The Committee has a difficult tightrope to walk to make observations and recommendations that provide an opportunity for all local authorities and the central government to finesse and reform the current system, to ensure the highest standards of ethical behaviour are maintained and strengthened in local government. It is well worth the walk.”


“Cool down nuclear plan because renewables are better bet, ministers told”

“Government advisers have told ministers to back only a single new nuclear power station after Hinkley Point C in the next few years, because renewable energy sources could prove a safer investment.

The National Infrastructure Commission (NIC) said the government should cool down plans for a nuclear new build programme that envisage as many as six plants being built.

The commission, launched by George Osborne in 2015, said that a decade ago it would have been unthinkable that renewables could be affordable and play a major role in electricity generation. But the sector had undergone a “quiet revolution” as costs fell, it said.

Sir John Armitt, the NIC’s chairman, said: “They [the government] say full speed. We’re suggesting it’s not necessary to rush ahead with nuclear. Because during the next 10 years we should get a lot more certainty about just how far we can rely on renewables.”

He argued that wind and solar could deliver the same generating capacity as nuclear for the same price, and would be a better choice because there was less risk. “One thing we’ve all learnt is these big nuclear programmes can be pretty challenging, quite risky – they will be to some degree on the government’s balance sheet,” he said.

“I don’t think anybody’s pretending you can take forward a new nuclear power station without some form of government underwriting or support. Whereas the amount required to subsidise renewables is continually coming down.”

Renewables were a “golden opportunity” to make the UK greener and make energy affordable, he added.