Iain Dale has an interview with Communities Secretary Eric Pickles today. As you might expect, it’s not exactly hard-hitting, but Pickles is given a bit of space to set out his ideas, and the changes he wants to bring about in local government. In answer to a question about council leadership models (mayors, cabinets or committees) he responds:
I don’t care how things are organised. They can have it on the basis of a committee system, on a cabinet basis, on the mayoral system. If they want to introduce it on a choral system with various members of the council singing sea shanties, I don’t mind, providing it’s accountable, transparent and open. That’s all I need to know.
Well, apathy about local organisation from the Secretary of State might make Tory councillors cheer, but local government matters, and so does local governance, so it’s not an issue one should be insouciant about.
Let’s start from the point about “accountable, transparent and open”. Pickles is right to imply that any system can be obscure and unaccountable, depending on people’s behaviours. However, some systems will be more likely to lead to accountability than others, so it’s not quite as much of an open choice as he suggests.
More important, the people who make the choice about governance models (and, under the Government’s policy, can veto boundary changes) are those most directly involved in the consequences – the councillors themselves. It’s no coincidence that powers for councillors to introduce directly elected mayors are little-used. Why would councillors agree to reduce their own power, even if it did make politics more accountable and transparent?
The local government governance mish-mash (two-tier, cabinet, mayors) will never be sorted out by the councils themselves, because the councillors and officer structures will build elegant arguments for their continued power and organisational survival no matter what the consequences for efficiency, accountability and transparency.
Councillor self-interest and public apathy mean that this is an area where localism should take a back seat to independent judgement by national politicians. There is no rationale for rural Herefordshire villages to be in a unitary authority when rural Kentish villages are not. Similarly, Watford is not better-suited by nature for a directly-elected Mayor than Sevenoaks. The Government should take a position, not leave councillors to be judge and jury in their own cases.