Localism and MPs

More than half the issues which constituents bring to me are matters decided by the local Council, not by Parliament. In recent years there has been an escalation in representations. People are more likely to write to the Prime Minister about something to be settled in Parliament, and more likely to write to the MP about something to be settled in the Council Chamber.

If the new localism is to work well we need to persuade more voters to engage directly with their Councillors, and more Councillors to have local media personalities and to welcome more correspondence and debate with local voters. That way we can move to a world where turnout is higher in local elections, and more thought and passion is injected into local decision making.

When people write to the local MP about a matter for the Council there are three possible responses. The MP can write back correctly pointing out that he has no power to make the decision, and that interference by him would probably be resented by local officials and Councillors. He could take the matter up with the Council, and act as an intermediary with the Council, sending on their reply when it is available. He could himelf take a view on the matter and end up defending the Council’s decision to the local voters,or in a public dispute with the Council.

None of these responses is ideal, because they all have the same main drawback. The public is not directly engaging with the people with the power to make the decision in question. Localism will require stronger local democracy. Democracy requires dialogue between decision makers and decsion sufferers. Bring it on. It will be healthier than central direction, and better than a system where there are so many layers of government you can never pin down who is to blame.

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23 Comments

  1. Mike Stallard
    Posted August 29, 2010 at 10:07 am | Permalink

    Excellent!
    We are starting up a new school here in Wisbech and some of the local Councillors are showing an interest – even though the ultimate responsibility is not theirs. This is most encouraging, actually.

  2. Iain Gill
    Posted August 29, 2010 at 10:38 am | Permalink

    who do i write the following complaint to?

    the conservatives promises to cut back on workers from outside of europe, but have failed to do so, and in not including intra company transfer visas in these figures they are being less than honest as the indian outsourcers are just using them to flood the country with workers?

    when i protested to you that the word on the streets was that the coservatives in power would cut public spending by sending more public sector work to india you said no, however in page B6 of todays Sunday Telegraph Cameron has clearly been in India promising just this

    where is the Indiaseptic wing of the Conservative party?

  3. simon
    Posted August 29, 2010 at 11:12 am | Permalink

    After >20 years of centralised government, people have become accustomed to decisions being taken at the highest level. Surely that is why you see the activity that you do. Frustrating thought it may be, people have to be shown that decisions can be made at the lowest possible level. It looks like you are set to become an educator, gently showing people how government and society should work.

  4. Breaker
    Posted August 29, 2010 at 11:40 am | Permalink

    a system where there are so many layers of government you can never pin down who is to blame

    I suspect this is by design, not by accident.

    • APL
      Posted August 29, 2010 at 4:35 pm | Permalink

      The Circumlocution Office used, when government was relatively small to be a modest outfit. Today, when government has gobbled up half of GDP there is no need for the office since the raison d'être of government is to misdirect.

  5. forthurst
    Posted August 29, 2010 at 12:09 pm | Permalink

    Do local councillors hold surgeries? My local councillor is inviting me to contact him by providing details including State, Zip Code, Country and a Comment. No sign of any surgery hours.

    I certainly do not think MPs should waste their time on council matters so perhaps they need to encourage their local councillors to hold surgeries, then they can refer cases appropriately. As it is MPs are tempted to act inappropriately probably as a defensive measure thereby wasting the time to engage in matters for they were elected.

    I am also concerned that my local MP acts as an agent for a foreign power; I personally regard all such activities under the notional heading of treason since the actual offence was abolished by Blair presumably in the certain foreknowledge of his future activities.

  6. Alan Wheatley
    Posted August 29, 2010 at 1:28 pm | Permalink

    Agreed, but spare a thought for the poor citizen who has to navigate their way through the administrative maize. Unitary authorities could have been a boon, but instead of doing the obvious, making ALL unitary authorities the county council (and urban equivalent), we have been handed a moving mess.

    And confusion does not end there. How are we to understand where the local authority is indeed fully responsible and where they are constrained as the agency of government policy. Finger pointing goes both ways!

    And lets not forget that if you want effective division of authority and responsibility then this has to be paralleled by resources.

    Get all this right and the the citizen is far more likely to be contacting the correct person.

  7. Andrew
    Posted August 29, 2010 at 1:43 pm | Permalink

    Some of the issues constituents approach politicians about are beyond the reach of anyone .For example they may be about unfotrunate or even tragic personal circumstance that no one can change. Other issues could in truth be resolved simply by the enquirer themselves ,– by commision or omission.

    However your post is very relevant to the recent discussions here re traffic "management "clutter. Eric Pickles has railed against this; but as some posters have pointed out , –much this clutter stems from national Legislation, –and only national Government can change that.

    On the other hand is no law that ifor example ndicates that pavements have to painted in different colours . That is down to the Local Authority.,and definitely down to Local Councillors to either change, or justify (or in my view never to have considered in the first place ) . A further issue here though is that Local Councillors do not make some decisions, — as many of these are delegated to Council Officials.

    . .

  8. Derek Buxton
    Posted August 29, 2010 at 1:49 pm | Permalink

    "Engage with the local councillors", "debate", That was intended as a joke, I trust. That is virtually impossible, they do not want to know. Getting information is difficult and suggestion that go against their ideas are just ignored. The situation was made worse by the introduction of the "cabinet" system and CEOs. These people are party animals and the party line is all that matters to them. The good of the area is of no concern, the expenses and allowances keep rolling in and that is what happens.

  9. DBC Reed
    Posted August 29, 2010 at 2:09 pm | Permalink

    MP's insist on the local connexion so if they go round saying that they represent one part of a town,people naturally believe they do.And know all about it.
    I tried to get a local MP to join an All Party Parliamentary Group but he said I did n't live in his constituency so he was n't allowed to.My own MP agreed then backed out saying that since the proposed APPG threatened to restrain house pruces she did n't want to know .In neither case was this a local issue but a national matter.
    In my view MP's should cease to represent towns but should go back to representing counties, working on the old rule of thumb that you should be able to visit anybody in a county within a one day's journey. Aggregating all the one-horse town MP's could give as many as eight County MP's to be decided by Borda count.

  10. Steve
    Posted August 29, 2010 at 4:00 pm | Permalink

    Well, Mervyn King (and his former socialist bosses) is directly responsible for the fact that my pension pot is promising me the lowest annuity rates ever when I retire, as well as for giving me zero interest on my savings. I assume that he does sort of, actually, somehow, report to Mr. Osborne, so should I e-mail him or my local Labour MP who is as likely to agree with my views as I am to agree with Mervyn's? In terms of representation on major national issues, our democracy is rubbish, a complete and utter sham. MP's have to toe the party political line and your so-called 'representation' depends entirely on the party of the current incumbent. And why would Mr. Osborne take any notice of my moans – I didn't elect him? We're busily inflating our way out of the national debt, impoverishing everyone who has saved for their retirement, benefiting only those with foolishly excessive borrowing habits – in other words, HMG! The fact that a supposedly Conservative Chancellor and PM are going along with this Marxist theft disgusts me.

  11. Martin
    Posted August 29, 2010 at 7:47 pm | Permalink

    My typical complaints to local councils (of all parties) over the years go:-

    ———-
    "When are you going to do something about xxx roundabout?

    Answer "No money"

    "if you choose to give your employees affordable private sector pensions instead of the present gold plated you would have plenty of money"

    Answer "" just a shrug of the shoulders.
    ———-
    "Why is the xyz not open today?"

    Answer "EU elf and safety rules"

    "xyz are open in other EU countries – give me the number or whatever of the EU rule"

    Answer "" just a shrug of the shoulders.
    ————

    This is what we the electorate deal with down the council. What is sad is the EU hating press let councils off with this nonsense to.

    Wonder if any political party has a Council-Sceptic wing?

  12. Ashley Wills
    Posted August 29, 2010 at 8:21 pm | Permalink

    One of the keys to restoring strong local democracy is the advent of self-financing local authorities either via a locally implemented sales tax or some combination of other taxations (with central gov't lowering the corresponding tax's to limit an increase in tax burden).

    Alongside self-financing, which would vastly increase the dynamic of accountability between local representatives and voters, is to adopt the American system of directly elected executives e.g. Mayors and Governors. Such positions, embued with proper power and popular mandates would command the attention of the local electorate and naturally have a big media presence district by district.

    Currently local voters don't know where to turn, but by giving the head of the local authority a face, a name and a profile, this would solve this problem immediately, and also reduce the workload of local MPs to boot.

    I understand the Coalition will introduce Mayors to the twelve most populated cities in Britain. This is most welcome. But I hope it does not stop their, and over the proceeding years we also see a roll out of such directly elected positions everywhere up and down the land.

    Another benefit would be that, inevitably, such roles would greatly increase the temptation for high calibre people to get involved with politics thus upping the standard of the entire political food chain. Eventually we might be able to even elect Prime Ministers who have proven track records of executive decision making and administrations.

  13. Ralph
    Posted August 29, 2010 at 8:33 pm | Permalink

    The problem with contacting your local councillor, especially if you're in the East Sussex district is the tonne of bureaucracy and hoops one has to jump through before you get acknowledged, then you have to wait for nearly a month to get a nonchalant response to say that they won't do anything about it.
    At least when you write to your local MP, he responds and at least looks like he's going to do something

  14. Bazman
    Posted August 29, 2010 at 9:21 pm | Permalink

    Palace building by 'chief executives' is the real problem. These people with the help of MP's have talked up their jobs to stupid levels. It's common knowledge on the scale of the banking scam. An oligarchy no less.

  15. Ashley Wills
    Posted August 29, 2010 at 11:55 pm | Permalink

    I've written numerous comments to this blog of yours now Mr. Redwood, and not once has a comment of mine ever been posted?

    What is it? Do I not pass the moderation process?

  16. FaustiesBlog
    Posted August 30, 2010 at 1:50 am | Permalink

    What happens when the council is behaving unreasonably and the law is in their favour to do so?

    How can it possibly be fair for councils to send out "final reminders" for council tax bills without sending them by recorded/special delivery? They say that they have proof of posting, but how can they be sure that the reminder is delivered?

    Should the final reminder go astray, as so much post does these days, the constituent is then faced with a court summons and a £45 charge for that summons.

    Is that justice? Surely, before a council or any public or private body resorts to the law, the onus should be on them to ensure that there is an official record of the intended recipient's receipt of the relevant correspondence.

    Constituents are between a rock and hard place – they are not in control of their councils' procedures or in control of the dire postal services. And yet, they are always penalised for failings in these organisations.

    Here, surely, the law is at fault. Consumers/constituents simply do not have the law on their side.

  17. guy herbert
    Posted August 30, 2010 at 9:20 am | Permalink

    There's a further problem. Councillors don't currently have much power over what the local authorities do. Power is mostly in the hands of officers and their professional interpretation of statutory duties imposed by Whitehall. The Standards Boards help ensure councillors who know anything about the subject in hand keep their noses out.

  18. Lindsay McDougall
    Posted August 30, 2010 at 10:28 am | Permalink

    Westminster MPs of all parties are to a large extent responsible for the current public attitude. Since 1973 they ceded more and more of their power to the Common Market / European Economic Community / European Community / European Union (the changes in name reveal what has been happening).

    Since 1979, Westminster has intervened in the affairs ot local government more and more. The Conservatives capped rates and introduced a national business rate. Both the Conservatives and Labour have supported local government with large grants from central government, at the price of greater interference in local affairs. Labour in particular has set up all sorts of quangos and interfering busybodies, which the coalition has made a start in tackling.

    And it was John Major who said that local government was never meant to be a power in the land.

  19. THE ESSEX GIRLS
    Posted August 30, 2010 at 10:51 am | Permalink

    Exactly 2 years ago we helped produce a Proposed Policy Document for Essex MPs which caused not a ripple in their pond of pre-conceived dogma!
    Amongst the section on ideas for parliamentary reform was one on MP expenses. How many might now wish they had heeded our thoughts given the storm that broke 8 months later!

    We also made the following proposal then and still advocate it now:

    "THE SECTORS OF GOVERNMENT
    There is widespread public confusion over the responsibilities and inter-connection between the different forms of government – Central, Council, District, Town & Parish. The confusion over council tax and who should be held accountable for the incessant increases is a prime example.
    An explanation of each sector’s role and the ways they should be made to work together for the common good would be applauded and surely be beneficial."

  20. Mark
    Posted August 30, 2010 at 11:19 am | Permalink

    Much of the problem stems from the lack of local accountability in local government. Too many targets are set in Whitehall, and spending dictated from there. There are encouraging moves away from the centralised diktats so beloved by Labour.

    However, there are also organisational issues that maintain the democratic deficit. Councillors often lack control over what is happening in the various council departments, especially under the cabinet system that empowers non-elected quangocrats to run private fiefdoms. Actions such as putting spending on line only help just so far. They cannot root out corruption in the planning department, or the housing department, or the allocation of school places, where the prizes are not contracts for goods and services handed out by officials, but advantages that may be bought by those with the right connections and maybe a brown envelope. If a clique can dominate a town hall department they can confer advantage on their own narrow section of the community.

    In such an environment, decentralising the rules can make appeal against decisions virtually impossible, while the rules can be reset to favour the cliques in an even more one sided manner. There is little that Councillors can do to counter such developments given the present structure (and indeed, a high likelihood that Councillors themselves become wrapped in the same clothing).

    MPs such as yourself need to consider the wider picture underlying problem, rather than the individual detail issues that constituents bring to your attention. They are signalling that local government doesn't work, and needs reform.

  21. gammidgy
    Posted August 31, 2010 at 11:51 am | Permalink

    We do indeed need more engagement with our elected representatives, and a blog such as this is a good start. Does anybody know of any Wokingham councillors that blog or tweet?

  22. Roger Pearse
    Posted September 6, 2010 at 11:10 pm | Permalink

    John, the problem is that local councillors do not want to know. I have tried writing to district and county councillors (as appropriate), when I encountered problems with local services. But the attitude I encounter is that they have no duty to meet with local people. They don't run surgeries, they don't encourage communication, and they often don't respond if you write to them.

    There needs to be reform, I suggest. If councillors are representatives, they need to be accessible. That means putting in place something like constituency surgeries, and making it clear that they DO have an obligation to the people.

  • About John Redwood


    John Redwood won a free place at Kent College, Canterbury, and graduated from Magdalen College Oxford. He is a Distinguished fellow of All Souls, Oxford. A businessman by background, he has set up an investment management business, was both executive and non executive chairman of a quoted industrial PLC, and chaired a manufacturing company with factories in Birmingham, Chicago, India and China. He is the MP for Wokingham, first elected in 1987.

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