A version of this post first appeared on Liberal Conspiracy.
The UK, in my experience, is unique in how little resources, freedom and profile our municipal government receives. Control is notoriously centralised in London, though now with some devolution for the nations other than England. All the parties talk of ‘localism’, ‘decentralisation’ or ‘subsidiarity’, but will the coalition government deliver any of that?
John Perry Barlow argues that we are in an era of city states. I’m not sure I would take it quite that far, but certainly there seems to be increasing consensus that local municipalities need to be given more freedom to self determine and drive forward their futures.
Yet in reality UK local authorities have scant ability to make any major changes in direction. The vast majority of their funds are hand-outs from national government, over which they have no control. The incomes they can control are charges such as for parking and council tax. However if council tax is increased too much (over 5%) the government steps in and blocks the change. Meanwhile many of the responsibilities a council must meet are set down in law and so cannot be avoided. Fixed responsibilities (costs) against very limited fundraising options (income) is a difficult place to be.
This is made much worse, in my view, because municipal political leadership is done on the cheap. I’m sure it’s not a popular view, but I think we need to pay local politicians more.
As a councillor I represent over 11,000 people in my ward and participate in decisions affecting the 250,000 people of our city plus the many more who visit. Because Brighton & Hove City Council is a unitary authority I’m fortunate to receive £11,900 a year before tax. Some city councillors receive as little as £4,000 a year. Birmingham City Council, the largest municipal authority in Europe pays backbench councillors £16,300 a year. I don’t think that’s enough for running a city, unless we want to leave it just to the wealthy and retired.
If I look at municipal councils overseas such as in Europe, Canada and the United States we see that, particularly for cities, councillors are much better resourced and have greater influence over how their municipality runs. There may be a chicken and egg situation going on here: Until our local authorities get more power it may be hard to argue for better resourced local politicians; but without their having more time and support we may never succeed in persuading national government to give us more freedom. Without resolving this issue the full-time council officers will continue to take the lead because elected politicians lack the time and resources to contribute effectively.
Possibly some councils are too big and need fewer councillors to make this argument more palatable to local tax payers. Regardless, if we want better local government, more local innovation and more inclusive representation we need to increase the support we provide councillors. For cities and major towns we certainly need councillors to dedicate themselves full time to their area’s future. Amateur, part-time local politicians are not enough to provide high quality leadership for innovative local government.