How government stifles local democracy

Yesterday I went to meet the new Chief Executive of Wokingham Unitary Borough Council. Chief Executives come and go in local government, drawing good salaries whilst they stay, before moving on to larger Councils or quangos that spend more money and employ more staff. The last couple of Chief Executives at Wokingham have had three big issues on their desks, that have now been passed on to their successor.

The details of the issues will not concern most readers of this site, though they are similar no doubt to issues facing other Councils in the suburbs and shires. The interesting thing is to ask, Where does power lie now in this overgoverned but undermanaged country we live in? How much power does a Chief Executive, working to the brief of the Council leadership, have to get things done?

The three things that the Councillors agree about that sit on the CEO’s desk are that Wokingham is experiencing too much new housing development on green fields, that it needs a redeveloped Town Centre (including some new residential units), and that it needs a new station and transport interchange. These items have sat on the same desk – with different people looking at that from behind that desk – for the last ten years.

My electors are right in thinking that a project like a new station requires efforts from national and local government, from Network Rail and from the Council. In 2001 I included in my election proposals support for a new station and transport interchange. I was careful not to claim I could deliver one. An Opposition MP has no executive power and no budget for such things. I took plans to the Council, the government and Railtrack/Network Rail. I explained how the land – owned by the public sector – could be used for a suitable development which would give enough planning gain to pay for a new station. I reasoned that the Labour government favoured rail travel. It had a policy to modernise the railway. Even assuming it wouldn’t want to spend any additional public money in an area like Wokingham, our golden acres could come to the rescue and raise the money for a suitable scheme. Ministers confirmed they liked the idea of modernising stations out of property profits at Network Rail. Schemes were drawn up. The Council was enthusiastic. The Chief Executive was given it as a task to see it through. Nothing happened. In the 2005 election I dropped all reference to supporting such a scheme, as I concluded that Network Rail simply isn’t up to doing something like that.

My electors are also right in thinking that the national government is heavily involved in all the building on floodplain and over the remaining greenfields which they so dislike. Councillors and their executives are locked in difficult arguments about whether to confront the government and lose, or whether to co-operate with the government and gain more cash from developers when they get planning permission. As an Opposition MP I join with my colleagues to demand more local planning control, and to vote against the centralising measures this government pushes through. The Council has to conform to government requirements in the local plan, and finds that if it turns down too many proposals the government simply trumps it on appeal. If the Council co-operates it can do a better deal for the local community over any given planning application, at the cost of some electors thinking they have been let down by their Councillors who should have opposed it to the last ditch.

The third item on the CEO’s desk is the need for a redevelopment of the Town Centre. In this case the Council has granted planning permission, but the developer is still not in a position to carry out the works. For once it is not government that is the problem, but getting all the private interests together and pointing in the same direction. It is an interesting challenge for the CEO, and one which has defeated her predecessors.

It all adds to people’s sense of frustration with government. The Council they elect cannot have its way on planning matters, and cannot get the nationalised railway company to follow the stated policy of the government that owns it on our behalf. Even when MP, Council leadership and the Council executive team are united on what to do, the stifling inadequacies of central government and Network Rail, or the deliberate wish to follow a different policy in the case of planning conspire to prevent progress or to thwart the will of the community.

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6 Comments

  1. Matthew Reynolds
    Posted February 16, 2008 at 11:28 am | Permalink

    That is a very sad & undemocratic situation you seem to face in Wokingham . It did strike me that just giving planning powers to local councils & possibly reviewing regulations to see how many could be axed or streamlined might be a way forward . As for the railways surely there must be other countries who have a private -public railway system that functions better than our centraliased , neo – Soviet system that just produces delays & soaring fares in uncomfortable trains ? Can we not just learn from abroad about improving transport especially with regards to Notwork Rail ? All this extra subsidy & red tape seems to have made things ever worse . Could not a private company raising money on the markets mean less subsidy and a more consumer responsive service if monopoly was ended ? Also a private firm more reliant on the good will of the public for its income might be more inclined to listen to people about providing new services ? In other words your problems in Wokingham can I believe be solved by Tory Minister's delivering on a Conservative vision for society via the kind of policy agenda that I suggest .

  2. Cliff
    Posted February 16, 2008 at 1:36 pm | Permalink

    What I find most annoying about local authorities is the way they waste so much money telling us how well they are spending our money. Big glossy magazines that must cost a fortune to produce and distribute to every home in the borough.
    The money wasted on translation services. The mad titles of some of their posts, I recently received a letter from "Town centre champion" what on earth is that all about? We have a free local newspaper delivered to every home in Wokingham, why don't the council take out a full page advert in there telling us this information?

    I know that many of the problems that I outline above are not soley down to WBC but are down to Central Government diktats, but the "We are only following orders" defense doesn't wash with me.

    Over the last Ten years, Ripp off tax has rocketed, the grant from central government has diminished. (Punishment for being a Conservative area I suspect) Central Nanny makes more and more rules, regulations and diktats to local authorities but doesn't fund them. I am sick to death of central government sending so much of my "Local Council Tax" up T'North to her heartlands.

    What Labour politicians can't see is that, we the people do not have unlimited funding sources, the

  3. Stuart Fairney
    Posted February 17, 2008 at 8:26 am | Permalink

    Local government funding is a mess. I fully understand why no politician wants to re-visit the position, but the annual farce when council tax increases are announced (i.e. local governments say central government didn't give them enough money, and central government say "Oh yes we did, it's all local authority waste to blame

  4. Posted February 17, 2008 at 7:39 pm | Permalink

    The point about conforming to the Local Plan is interesting; and indeed for the time being any significant departure from the Plan has to be referred to the Secretary of State for approval of that departure.

    However, as I am sure you already know, the new Local Development Framework (LDF) methodology (far more complex, by the way) is taking over, and each council's LDF must be in conformance with the regional plan created by the unelected Regional Assembly or equivalent.

    That regional plan is, surprise surprise, a reflection of Central Government's policies, so this is just another way to sneak their dictatorship methods into all local councils' planning work — including their plans for vast numbers of new housing units.

    Thus the council will get the blame for any unpopular housing developments, whereas they were effectively forced into compliance by outsiders' wishes (I count anyone from beyond the borough boundaries as an "outsider", whether in a quango, Whitehall, Brussels or anywhere else).

    Reply: Of course, that is the way our centralised bureaucracy now works against the views of the people.

  5. Posted February 17, 2008 at 11:27 pm | Permalink

    It is surprising how often there is a commonsense answer to what have been seen as insuperable problems.

    John Redwood

  6. mikestallard
    Posted February 18, 2008 at 6:56 pm | Permalink

    Why did we let this happen and what (if anything) can we do about it?
    Me, I am getting sick and tired of moaning.
    We need some positive leadership – and the tories ought to be out there telling us exactly what they propose!

  • About John Redwood


    John Redwood won a free place at Kent College, Canterbury, He graduated from Magdalen College Oxford, has a DPhil and is a fellow of All Souls College. A businessman by background, he has been a director of NM Rothschild merchant bank and chairman of a quoted industrial PLC.

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