Former GLC and Croydon councillor DAVID WHITE reviews an important new book on local government which raises familiar concerns about control of our councils
Local government today is not in a healthy state. Most local councillors have little power while at the same time there is a dangerous over-concentration of power in the hands of a few. Services are being cut and many council services are being outsourced and privatised.
Peter Latham’s excellent book Who Stole the Town Hall? The end of local government as we know it examines how the neoliberal agenda of recent governments, New Labour as well as Tory, has led to this sorry state of affairs.
Dr Latham is a sociologist who is based in Croydon, and is a delegate to Croydon Trades Union Council. His previous works include a an important thesis on Theories of the Labour Movement in the 1970s. From 1999 to 2006 he was Treasurer and then Secretary of the Labour Campaign for Open Local Government.
His provocative new book begins with a critique of the Local Government Act 2000. Before this Act, most councils had a system of committees, which made decisions or reported to full council. Almost all councillors were members of one or more of the committees. The 2000 Act changed things so that most areas now have a mayor and cabinet or a leader and cabinet. Croydon has the latter.
One result of the changes is that the council mayor or leader is elected or appointed for a fixed period and cannot easily be removed. He or she appoints cabinet members (who receive substantial allowances – more than £44,000 a year in Croydon), which gives the mayor or leader enormous powers of patronage. Backbench councillors are marginalised, as they have virtually no say over policy.
Council meetings are largely a waste of time, as decisions have already been made by the leader or the cabinet.
Latham also analyses the “outsourcing”, or privatisation of many council services. This move is designed to reduce the public sector of the economy and increase the profits of private companies (many of whom also happen to be donors to the Conservative Party).
As Latham points out, the system of directly elected mayors and “strong leaders” is “the optimal internal management arrangement for privatised local government services”.
The book also covers many other areas.
These include cuts to local government finance by recent governments, the unsuccessful and undemocratic system of Police and Crime Commissioners and the need for reform of the system of raising local government finance.
There is a case study of Croydon and the way in which commercial interests play a pivotal role in deciding policy in the borough, in an undemocratic and often secretive way.
Latham’s book is authoritative but at the same time readable. He backs up his arguments at every stage with statistics, quotations and other evidence.
This book is essential reading for anyone interested in local democracy and the provision of local services. In particular anyone thinking of standing as a local councillor should read it from cover to cover.
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