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Local democracy is crucial to our coronavirus recovery

What’s needed in the domestic tourism-focused economy of Cornwall may bear little resemblance to the decisions that need to be made in Leeds, says Baroness Bennett | Credit: PA Images

4 min read

Just as the medical impact of Covid-19 has varied enormously around the country, attempts to recover from the shock of the virus’s arrival are going to have to be very different.

There’s a disturbing tendency in Westminster to think about local government – when local government is thought about at all – as a delivery vehicle, a local arm to act at the will of the central government, moving this way on social care or that way on education.

And that’s certainly how local government has been funded, the flow of pounds to it squeezed to the point where it can just about meet its statutory – that is Westminster-directed – duties, and no more.

That hollowing out has done great damage to communities, and to the institutions of local government themselves.

They are one of the many elements of fragility of our society that has left it extremely vulnerable to the impact of SARS-CoV-2.

Yet just as the medical impact of Covid-19 has varied enormously around the country – sadly but inevitably hitting worst at the places already suffering under decades of economic neglect and decline – so attempts to recover from the shock of the virus’s arrival are going to have to be very different.

Local government has to be the guide, the decisionmaker.

What’s needed in the domestic tourism-focused economy of Cornwall – which faces managing a summer while the need for livelihoods has to be balanced with the essential priority of ensuring medical services are not overwhelmed – may bear little resemblance to the decisions that need to be made in Leeds, where a focus on legal and financial services has seen large amounts of business move to working from home.

Hundreds of miles away in London, how is the government going to know what is needed, let alone deliver on it? As the Local Government Association has said, it has to be central to economic recovery.

The answer has to be that local government has to be the guide, the decisionmaker.

The Green Party has always believed in local decision-making – choices being made locally by the people affected and only referred upwards when absolutely necessary. (We used to call it localism until Eric Pickles debased the term.)

But that decision-making has to be democratic.

When we look at what was happening pre-coronavirus in the already limited local democracy, marred by the unrepresentative first-past-the-post electoral system and the failure to support truly representative councils (pale, male and stale is the phrase that is all too applicable in too many places), that was already a huge lack.

Coronavirus has made that worse, but not uniformly.

My gold star case study, via Green Councillor Andrew Cooper, is the Kirkburton Parish Council grants committee, making its decisions by videoconference on April 30.

One of the laggards – with no excuse of small size, difficult broadband or surely lack of knowledge – is Peterborough City Council, drawn to my attention by Councillor Julie Howell, which is yet to hold, and seems not to be planning to do so, a full council meeting.

At all kinds of levels of local government, there’s been unnecessary limitations on democracy. In my home city of Sheffield, a critical planning inquiry has seen most of scores of complainants excluded from testifying. Decisions that are crucial to individuals and communities, from taxi complaints to licencing of door-to-door collectors, is being taken from councillors and handed over to un-elected officers.

These are not great matters of state, but they are a further erosion of our already limited democracy.

The planning problem seems to be widespread, judging from the concerns of the Campaign for the Protection of Rural England.

Of course video meetings are not a complete solution – at least not without making significant efforts to ensure that the digitally excluded are provided with ways to participate – but that’s not an excuse for not doing as much as possible.

Today I asked the government about what steps it is taking to ensure this democracy is happening, and whether it would be guided by local democratic decisions in its actions.

The answer I got was that it was up to the local government bodies. Odd now that the government decides to respect local autonomy in this area, when it does in so few others.

So what could it do? Some dedicated funding from Westminster for local democracy would be one possibility, which could then be combined with linking further funding to democratic decisions being made about its use.

Another would be a simple, clear statement of expectation – that the Coronavirus Emergency Law contained provisions to allow democracy to continue, and is expected to be used.

Of course there’s a problem with that, after yesterday’s House of Commons farce. But Westminster’s not had problems with saying “do as I say not as I do” in many contexts, and this would be one of the better arguments for doing so.


Baroness Bennett is a Green Party member of the House of Lords

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