THE BLOG

Our Councils Are Dying - Here's How We Save Them.

10/02/2014 12:23 GMT | Updated 09/04/2014 10:59 BST

British local government is ailing. Funding cuts and structural constraints are hampering the ability of councillors to represent their residents and their effects are alienating local voters to the extent of creating a local democratic vacuum.

Public spending must be cut, nationally and locally. This cannot be questioned by serious people. UK growth projections validate the government's approach to public spending levels and central government is correct to seek savings from local government. But despite some action on localism, the government's continued control over councils' purse strings is threatening to crush any vitality that remains.

Central government is slashing councils' grants while constraining the ability of councils to respond with anything other than varying degrees of local cuts and tax increases. This is not sustainable and genuine local control would look very different.

Couple funding constraints with the multi-tier nature of most British local government and the result is a recipe for voter and member frustration. As a borough councillor I am the frontline; usually the first point-of-contact for residents with a local issue whether that issue is the responsibility of the borough or the county. Residents are not interested in the finer distinctions between different tiers of local government - they just want their local services run efficiently. And they are quite right; the multi-tier approach is a 1970s construct in the 21st Century. It is obsolete.

My local county council, Kent, has managed to freeze council tax for several years running. However, duplication and diseconomies of scale are inevitable in a two-tier system. Also inevitable, especially for a 'border town' such as Tunbridge Wells, is the remoteness of the county administration and the necessity to spread already-stretched resources across a wide area.

All this leads to disenchantment, disengagement and voter apathy, which feeds a vicious circle of low turnout and subsequent democratic deficit.

We need to scrap wasteful multi-tier local government and radically reform the way councils are funded.

Breaking up county councils and creating unitary authorities comprised of three or four district councils would enable greater local representation and accountability, drive potentially significant economies of scale and increase voter interest and participation.

There would be some strategic, county-wide issues that would require cross-council cooperation, to be sure, but councils are well-capable of talking to each other. Councils could also form themselves into procurement groups when tendering for contracts such as highway maintenance as, again, many of them already do.

The single-tier approach would also enable a significant reduction in the number of elected representatives. As Conservative campaign manager Andrew Kennedy points out on his blog, Kent has more elected representatives than the entire US federal government - 714 versus 536. While saving the cost of politicians, the single-tier approach would also attract a higher calibre of candidate as councillors' power would increase and the reduction in seats would create genuine competition. Perhaps we could see council candidates selected by local open primaries.

All this could be funded in an elegantly simple manner - a local sales tax, replacing VAT and making local councils self-funding. Daniel Hannan and Douglas Carswell make this suggestion in their book The Plan and note that in the United States, where states can set local sales taxes, tax competition has arisen. I can think of no better way to help our high streets than creating an incentive for councils to keep taxes low - if shoppers believe they are too high, they have but a short trip to the next town, with a lower tax rate. That this would enable the abolition of business rates - a business-crippler if ever there was one - is a delightful bonus.

Talk to some councillors, from all parties and all areas, and indeed some voters, and there is a feeling that local apathy is inevitable, that people are never going to be interested in the work of councils and councillors, that turnout for local elections will always be low and that people will never engage.

I think that's defeatist rubbish.

People are always interested in what goes on around them, but they don't always think the best way to influence that is to vote in local elections or write to their councillor. Many think such things a waste of time. Councillors need to be bold and imaginative if we want local government to flourish. We also have to act fast.