Wednesday, 25 March 2015

My thoughts on how to improve and reshape local government in the UK

Readers, at the same time as our general election, so many local authorities are having their own elections. Some councils are having all-out elections (all council seats up for election) whereas some councils are still having elections by thirds (one-third of council seats up for election). I myself will be standing as a Green Party candidate locally, in my hometown of Ware, in East Hertfordshire. With more parties than ever before likely to contest these local elections in addition to seats at the general election (some constituencies, according to, have 10 different PPCs already lined up and nominations have not opened yet!), the results will show once again the need to introduce proportional representation of some type into the UK's political system. The appearance of five-way marginal seats in Cornwall's elections of 2013 was just the first substantial crack in our broken system of local government.

I believe the following proposals should be implemented for British local government:

1. Elections by thirds should be scrapped, and all councils in the UK should have all-out elections once every four years. If a council only has one-third of its seats up for election each year, it becomes difficult for council control to change hands because the dominant party will have the most resources year by year, unless it is facing a meltdown locally or nationally (such as what happened with the Liberal Democrats in Liverpool, who in four years went from controlling the council to having just 3 seats), and opposition parties will be squeezed by having to use more resources year by year. Also, elections by thirds are more expensive and inefficient to administer overall, so for the sake of democracy and efficiency, all councils in the UK should have elections every four years for all their seats, and these should not coincide with parliamentary elections or regional assembly elections. (This is the case in most European nations)

2. Single Transferable Vote (STV) should replace First Past The Post as soon as possible, as it has done in Scotland. Votes are becoming ever more fragmented as more candidates contest council elections that are still held under FPTP, which allows parties to maintain dominance without a majority of votes and means that many council seats still go uncontested, particularly in rural areas such as Malvern. When Scotland adopted STV for local council elections from 2007, every seat was contested, and there has only been one uncontested by-election in Scotland since 2007 (albeit in the Eilean Siar area) whereas in the last eight years there have been many more uncontested by-elections in England and Wales. Additional Member System, whilst having a proportional element, will not adequately solve the problem of one-party dominance locally or nationally.

3. Local councils should have more power, including the power to raise rates again. Since the Local Government Act 1972, central government has exerted increasingly strict control over local government, and many local councils feel powerless. Local government functions which have ever been transferred to Whitehall should be given back as soon as possible, especially regarding local government finance.

4. Historic county boundaries should be restored, and abolished district councils should be reinstated. Unitary authorities are wholly inappropriate for rural counties like Shropshire and Wiltshire (and also the nation of Cornwall, still considered a county), and there was never a good and sensible reason for the abolition of such historic counties as Westmorland and Middlesex, or the vandalism of historic county lines (e.g. between Hampshire and Dorset when Christchurch and Bournemouth were moved from Hampshire to Dorset). Greater London should also be split back into Inner London and Middlesex, and London boroughs that were once part of Essex, Kent, or Surrey should be returned to those counties.

Please feel free to give your thoughts on these four proposals.

Regards, Alan.

1 comment:

  1. Hi Alan,

    Whilst election by thirds becomes irrelevant once you have some form of proportional representation, I think it's better than all-out elections under First Past The Post.

    Firstly, it allows smaller parties to compete on a level playing field. Here in Coventry, fielding a full slate means you have to find 18 candidates. If we switched to all-outs, we'd have to find 56. Also, yearly elections make it easier for a small party to build momentum in a particular ward, and so to break through onto the council. There's also no significant difference in the number of split-party wards between all-out and by-thirds councils (A look at the South East region by a friend of mine showed that there were a slightly higher proportion of split wards in by-thirds councils - but the difference wasn't much).

    Secondly, it increases the number of voters who participate in local elections. A number of years ago in Worthing, they proposed changing from thirds to all-outs. However, the Lib Dems looked at their copies of the marked register going back many years (I think, in fact, decades), and proved that the turnout over the whole 4-year election cycle was actually as high as for a general election, even though the turnout in any given year was substantially lower.

    As for the historic county lines, surely any reversion should be decided on a case-by-case basis. For example, Birmingham is now very definitely separate from Warwickshire. Also, the historic county boundaries weren't always strictly adhered to in terms of local government. There were plenty of cities that were given county status whilst remaining geographically part of their old county.