Is local democracy broken?
The apocalyptic images of the Grenfell Tower fire sparked renewed political tension in the immediate aftermath of a bitterly contested and divisive Brexit general election. For some, the fire symbolised the inevitable consequence of continued austerity in public finances, a remorseless ratcheting of funding cutbacks that were contributing a sense of heightened inequality between the wealthiest and poorest sections of society.
The seeming municipal impotence of a flagship Conservative borough – in the most affluent part of the capital – to take swift, organised and compassionate action on behalf of its most vulnerable residents indelibly marked a stark contrast between private affluence and public squalor. The political fallout was as swift as it was severe. Angry protests were held at Kensington and Chelsea Town Hall. Councillors, rather than facing their critics, shut them out of meetings. When it became clear that local residents had lost all respect for council leaders and officials, the former Treasury mandarin who served as chief executive was swiftly defenestrated at the behest of the secretary of state for communities and local government. The council leader soon chose to walk the plank against mounting local and national opprobrium.
But this kind of disconnect between local officialdom and residents is by no means confined to well-to-do Conservative boroughs, with similar criticism having been directed at both Rotherham’s Labour administration and independent Tower Hamlets in recent years. The perception commonly held, rightly or wrongly, is that councils and other arms of local government lack the capacity, resilience and popular accountability to legitimately protect and advance the interests of the communities they are supposed to serve.
Locally elected leaders are seen as a breed apart. Retired jobsworth obsessives and unrepresentative brigades of the ‘male, pale and stale’ conjure up images of the bickering parish councillors in The Vicar of Dibley. In many parts of the country, what passes for local democracy is dominated by single-party cliques – political monocultures of patronage seemingly immune from censure by a defanged regime for enforcing ethical standards.
But does the glare of national media attention on individual failures blind us to the everyday reality of robust, popular and effective local governance of all types up and down the country? Do residents really share the disdain felt by the national media, Westminster and Whitehall for local democracy? Are we at risk of missing the small picture, that the relationship between councillors and citizens is already being reshaped in a collaborative way, beneath the notice of the centralisers?