British institutions: local government

‘Try to get the British to use their democratic rights to improve their own localities: they don’t want to know’

Two hours before the big meeting, a crowd of about a hundred or so gathered outside Sheffield town hall. A union speaker was droning; earnest young people stood around carrying placards; scruffy blokes threaded their way through with copies of Socialist Worker and the Morning Star.

I half-expected a Sloaney young woman to rush up to me and tell me to get lost, that they were filming a gritty new drama about the 1980s (probably for Channel 4) and I was in the way. But no. This was a very 2011 protest. At the back was a poster van, showing a gorilla-like figure trampling the office blocks: “CLEGGZILLA – BRINGING HAVOC TO A CITY NEAR YOU.”

And the issues were hardly the great sweeping arguments that convulsed and divided Britain in the Margaret Thatcher decade. The city council was about to vote on a programme of cuts demanded in principle by the coalition government and devised in detail by Sheffield’s Liberal Democrat ruling group. For reasons I can explain later, the average Sheffield resident was unlikely to notice any of them.

During this piece of preliminary street theatre, there was a small clutch of protesters grouped behind the slogan: “LIBRARY WORKERS FOR A BRIGHTER FUTURE.” “Libraries are a soft option,” said a grey-haired woman who I might have guessed was a Yorkshire librarian if we had met in a Chicago crack den. “We know nobody’s died for lack of a library, but we have a lot of people who come in because they’ve got nowhere else to go.”

Nearby stood a couple of students, too young to remember the Thatcher era. Their placard was ­discreet, pleading, seemingly unanswerable. “SHEFFIELD DESERVES BETTER,” it said. But is that really true? “Every country has the government it deserves,” goes the old line (J.M. de Maistre, French philosopher, 1753-1821). British local government has an appalling reputation. Why? Well, maybe the British have reaped what they have sown.

In France, even the tiniest villages have mayors who reign like the sun king over their small domain. In Belgium, where national government has more or less ceased, they are even more ­important. In the US, the extremes of local decision-making are a source of constant fascination: Kennesaw, Georgia has made gun ownership ­compulsory; Belmont, California has banned ­smoking inside private houses (except detached ones, thus exempting the rich).

In Britain, parliament itself, inhibited by Europe, would struggle to pass such laws. Sheffield, the fourth-largest city in England, can decide whether to empty the bins on a Tuesday or a Wednesday. Beyond that, it gets problematic.

Britain has always been suspicious of local decision-making. John Stuart Mill, the apostle of liberty, insisted: “Centralisation was, and is, the subject not only of rational disapprobation, but of unreasoning prejudice.” And the very phrase “the council” conjures up a range of horrors: bumbling bureaucracy, tinpot tyrants, ’elf ’n’ safety gone mad, gold-plated pensions, corrupt chairmen of ­planning, grasping chief executives.

The mid-market tabloids, in particular, report new outrages almost daily: “A £569,000 pay-off? Nonsense … it was only £429,000, says UK’s best paid council chief” (South Somerset, Daily Mail); “Emptying a wheelie bin? It’s against ’elf ’n’safety” (Colchester, Daily Express); “Leave your bin out half a day too long and get a £110 fine” (Durham, the Mail again). Private Eye regularly carries a page of dirty doings from round the country without, one senses, scratching the surface.

The same thinking permeates the culture. The fictional Kennet and Avon Council is the enemy in Jez Butterworth’s wondrous play Jerusalem. “If you’ve got tits you don’t work for the council,” says a character in Alan Bennett’s play Enjoy. “You get yourself into the private sector.” Perhaps the most vivid of all local councillors was Alderman Foodbotham, “the 25-stone, crag-visaged, iron-watch-chained, grim-booted perpetual chairman of the Bradford City Tramways and Fine Arts Committee”, who was invented by the Daily Telegraph columnist Peter Simple in the 1950s – long before the arrival into politics of Foodbotham’s body double, Eric Pickles, who was himself leader of Bradford council before becoming the current communities and local government minister.

Even the public responses have a knee-jerk ­quality. “Postcode lottery!” goes the cry if a council or hospital refuses to provide some service that is available somewhere else. Well, life’s a postcode lottery. And, compared to the inhabitants of most of the earth, the British hold a winning ticket. Yet try to get them to use their democratic rights to improve their own localities: they don’t want to know. If they vote at all in local elections, they usually state their opinions on Westminster issues. Give them a chance to elect a mayor: they become more eccentric still. Doncaster chose an English Democrat, a party that is not just anti-EU and anti-immigration but anti-Scottish as well; Hartlepool voted for a man dressed in a monkey suit.

Not surprisingly, central government treats the whole thing with contempt. In the 1970s counties that had existed since Saxon times were abolished for administrative convenience, with insidious consequences for the nation’s sense of local identity. In the 1980s Margaret Thatcher, irritated by the Greater London Council, simply dissolved it.

Sheffield’s town hall is rather charming: a later, less bombastic, piece of Victorian architecture than, for instance, Manchester’s or Bradford’s. Perhaps the city had grasped by then that civic pride in Britain was going to be a restricted commodity. For the great cuts showdown, the wood-panelled council chamber was packed: all 84 councillors were present; the public gallery was crowded; there were five reporters on the press bench instead of the normal one. Sheffield’s ­political arithmetic has been fashionably knife-edge: 42 Liberal Democrats, 41 Labour, two Greens and an Independent (no Tory has been sighted in the ­council chamber in years). The situation is ­further complicated, it was explained to me, by the fact that the Independent, Frank Taylor, habitually goes home for his tea at 5pm, no matter what. With Labour professing to abhor the proposed cuts and the Greens uncomfortable, anything might happen. Thrilling stuff!

But this is local government and if excitement is ever on the agenda, someone will find a way of defusing, deferring or demurring. I sat there for four hours and it took a while to grasp that the entire meeting was even more ritualised than the demo that preceded it.

Despite the Lib Dems’ tenuous hold on power, Labour simply attacked the cuts (relatively well-crafted to avoid hardship) and proposed a ­minimum of alternative ­proposals. This was deliberate. Council elections across much of England and Northern Ireland are on Thursday; in Sheffield a third of ­councillors will have to stand again; British local democracy is so moribund that everyone knows the vote will hinge on national issues.

In Sheffield, the city he represents at Westminster, Cleggzilla would currently struggle to win a vote against King Kong, the Hartlepool monkey or a cholera epidemic. Thus his local ­supporters will be slaughtered and Labour will regain control. QED. Knowing this, the Labour councillors also knew their best strategy in the meantime was to sit tight and shut up.

Anyway, beyond the demonstrators outside, the other 533,900 residents of Sheffield may not be that bothered what the council decides. The Sheffield Star thought the council meeting was worth only page 5. A glimpse at the agenda suggests why. What was at issue? Verdon Street Recreation Centre … Pitsmoor Adventure Playground … the library service at Weston Park Hospital … Graves Art Gallery … the Rushey Meadow respite centre. Important public benefits, no doubt, each of them vital to the quality of life for some people. But ­central issues for most of Sheffield? A city the size of Atlanta, reduced to deciding between a care home here or a playground there.

Do the libraries really exist for citizens who just need somewhere warm to sit? Much of the time, it feels as though local government makes marginal decisions for those who are themselves marginalised by society. No wonder the more fortunate majority is apathetic, and the power of individual councillors pathetically limited. “There’s more frustration than victories,” admitted one opposition member, David Barker, “but sometimes when you get a new bath for an old lady, you’re really pleased.” “A councillor has got very little power but quite a lot of influence,” insisted his colleague Tony Damms, who has done the job for 29 years.

But even in this brief interlude when Sheffield was the hungest of hung councils, no one seemed capable of exercising that influence. As is usual these days, the city is now run by a cabinet, drawn entirely from the ruling group. Recently, Labour and the Greens joined together to defeat a council plan on solar panels. “They just ignored us,” said Damms. This is not just a Sheffield problem.

“If you were thinking of standing for the local council, hoping to achieve something,” said Gerry Stoker, professor of politics at Southampton ­university, “you’d be taking on an awful lot of ­commitment without the decision-making powers you would hope to have.” Or, as a wise old hand once said to me, when I was suspected of dickering with the idea of standing for my own council: “Don’t. You’d go mad.”

Quite clearly, there are multiple layers of ­constraint. Sheffield’s cuts were Sheffield’s choice only in detail: the government had decided that it would outsource blame by forcing councils on to the front line. In his budget, George Osborne crowed that every local authority in the country was co-­operating by freezing council tax – implying this was achieved by magic rather than by repeated blows to the head.

When Westminster is not directly involved, councillors still get thwarted. This magazine (November 21, 2009) reported on Tesco’s 14-year campaign to open a branch in the Norfolk resort of Sheringham, against furious local opposition. North Norfolk district council repeatedly ruled against the plan. Last year, it admitted defeat.

“Ultimately, the local democratic will did not prevail, and that’s a common experience,” said Norman Lamb, North Norfolk’s Lib Dem MP. “If a large powerful organisation with financial clout is determined enough, then normally councils buckle much sooner than this one did. There are broader planning policies on Tesco’s side and the officers become fearful that enormous costs will be awarded against them.”

“All councils are run by their officials except those with big, powerful, intelligent, politically astute leaders,” said Michael Taggart, who worked as a press officer for several authorities. “That’s probably 10 per cent. The rest are run by their chief executives. The officers are actually more political animals than most councillors. They know how to appear in public, how to make themselves look good. They know how to get their point across. If a councillor just wants a new pedestrian crossing, it would depend on whether the officers thought it was a good thing. It’s very rare for a council to do anything that the officers heavily oppose.”

Old-fashioned town clerks used to be local worthies every bit as entrenched as the Alderman Foodbothams. They would be rewarded with MBEs after their names that would linger on “Keep Off The Grass By Order” signs in parks long after they were gone. Newfangled chief executives are often careerists who shift from place to place to better themselves, may have little stake in, or sometimes knowledge of, the communities they run, and end up well paid (as the Mail keeps reminding us) and even better pensioned. In effect, they can themselves become instruments of Britain’s seemingly relentless drift towards centralisation.

Some people do stand for the council determined to achieve more than the occasional new bath for a pensioner. Newcastle’s Labour leaders have included the late T. Dan Smith, who ended up being jailed for corruption, and Jeremy Beecham, recently sentenced to an infinitely more agreeable form of life imprisonment in the House of Lords.

Lord Beecham is an exceptionally unusual figure in Britain: he returned from getting a first at Oxford, to be elected to Newcastle city council as a 22-year-old. He is still there, 44 years on, having spent 17 of those years as leader and somehow run a law firm and raised a family as well. He did try for Westminster in his youth, but it never happened for him and he has no regrets: “I’ve had a more fulfilling time and I’ve had a life as well.”

Beecham believes it is possible to make a difference, and enumerated his achievements for me (“we improved the teacher-pupil ratio, extended early years provision, doubled home help, trebled meals on wheels…”). He is also, like most councillors, a believer in the system and opposed to the idea of elected mayors: “Tony Blair had this idea that he was a charismatic figure and that you could have 430 other charismatic figures stepping in round the country. But there aren’t 430 people like that and it isn’t healthy.”

You would think that a man who has proved himself a champion of local government by his life’s work would at least be vaguely enthusiastic for the coalition’s localism bill, now winding its way towards the statute book and introduced to the Commons with a display of glorious eloquence from its progenitor, Eric Pickles: “The bill will reverse the centralist creep of decades and replace it with local control. It is a triumph for democracy over bureaucracy. It will fundamentally shake up the balance of power in this country, revitalising local democracy and putting power back where it belongs, in the hands of the people.”

“It all depends what you mean by the people,” said Beecham. “The thrust of the bill is to fragment local government and to downgrade representative local democracy in a way we haven’t seen on ­anything like this scale. It seems to be governed by the belief that there is an insatiable urge among the citizenry to vote all the time.”

And indeed, governmental intentions do seem a little confused. Some powers are undoubtedly being handed back to councils. But the rush towards giving secondary schools academy status will ­further lessen the councils’ ability to have any influence on education (it is not clear who will ultimately control the academies but experience suggests it will be Whitehall). In his budget, Osborne also announced new powers to direct the planning ­process. What are the two main functions of local government? Education and planning.

Ludlow, Shropshire: a pleasant evening in early spring, a Monday – the day the bells of St Laurence (which have a different tune for each day) traditionally play “See The Conquering Hero Comes”. It is also the night Ludlow town council meets. The ­connection is not immediately obvious.

As the mayor, John Aitken, declares the meeting open, there are also present: eight town councillors, two Shropshire county councillors, the local police inspector who is to deliver a report, the rector who says prayers and (to general bemusement) two representatives of the Financial Times. Members of the local press: 0. Members of the public: 0.

Ludlow’s population is 10,000, and they are far from apathetic. Few towns in England are this handsome and none of them, surely, is more self-conscious about its looks. Yet it rates only a parish council, its judgments merely advisory on the most piffling details. Decisions are made either 28 miles away in Shrewsbury by the county council, or 160 miles away in London (or sometimes 400 miles away in Brussels). Ludlow passionately opposed a plan to build new houses hard by the famously lovely and evocative church. Shropshire and Whitehall thought differently. The plan was thwarted only because it emerged that the church owned a wall the developers needed to demolish.

The minutes of the previous meeting gave the flavour of the council’s powerlessness. “The council supports the extension of the taxi rank… objects to a bollard being placed at the junction of Broad Street and Brand Lane… objects to the increased prices of some car-park tickets… requests the delay in the closure of the toilets…”

The very tone of the speakers seemed revealing. Martin Taylor-Smith, who is both one of Ludlow’s county councillors and a member of the Shropshire cabinet, had a notably irritated air, as though he had far more important meetings to address. And the inspector also sounded less than deferential: he was definitely telling, not asking. Theoretically, Shropshire consults Ludlow on Ludlow issues. This, say the locals, is very theoretical. “They don’t ­actually consult us,” said one town councillor, Viv Parry. “They tell us when a consultation has gone through.” “It’s a whale consulting the plankton,” said John Aitken.

And so it goes, throughout this most top-down of democracies. I don’t doubt the government’s distaste for the dirigiste micro-management of the Blair-Brown years. But will the good ­intentions survive reality? In particular, will they survive the expected anti-government swing this week and in the years to come which – on all known form – will leave a large number of local authorities in the hands of the Westminster opposition? Neither the precedents nor the signs are encouraging.

As any Arab protester could tell you, change comes when the population’s demands become unignorable. And in Britain – even in civic-minded Ludlow – the people neither care enough, nor have enough faith in their own judgment, to demand the right to make their own decisions.

British institutions: the BBC

To comment on this article, please e-mail

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2016. All rights reserved. You may share using our article tools. Please don't cut articles from and redistribute by email or post to the web.

More on this topic

Suggestions below based on FT Magazine

Twelve days in west Africa

Exhilaration, frustration and promise: Lionel Barber’s personal journey from Nigeria to Ghana allows him a glimpse of the region’s future