Tuesday, 21 October 2014

Does politics work for locals?

IN all the years I have been doing this job (too many according to my critics out there), I can’t remember a time when there was so much dissatisfaction with local government. Why is this?

You won’t be surprised, but I have a theory. 

When I first started covering rural and borough councils  in East Devon and occasionally Devon County Council, 50 years ago, politics had very little to do with it. We were all aware that East Devon was predominantly blue but the focus was very much on serving the electorate.

Councillors got little or no expenses and the officers were not paid such exorbitant salaries.  Debates were not dominated by groups of politically affiliated councillors, with members of other political shades marginalised, and there were no grand titles such as “portfolio holders”. Matters were dealt with by committees where all councillors had an influence.

With the exception of town councils, being an  elected representative today is as much a career as it is a service for many. I am not denying the amount of hours our councillors at district and county level put in, or questioning their commitment to their communities, but generally they are compensated for their efforts, especially the more capable and ambitious members who climb the political  ladder. Some of them receive far in excess of the average weekly wage in this area.

I’m not talking about every councillor.  I noticed when Googling councillors expenses, when I started thinking about a theme for this week’s column, that one long serving councillor claimed only £12.50 last year.

Times change and the reorganisation to create the current three-tier system (county, district and parish/town) back in 1974 was deemed necessary. Like it or not, local government is in the politics game and it will always be that way.

This became clear to me last week after I compared the different interpretation being put on the summoning of EDDC chief executive Mark Williams to a Commons Select Committee to answer question on electoral procedures. Having read the Hansard transcript of proceedings, it didn’t seem to me that it was a wholly enjoyable experience for Mr Williams.

One district councillor emailed me to say he was “mildly disappointed” with the view I had taken but then, incredulously, went on to criticise the “tame” spin put out by his own council’s communications team.  His words, not mine.

Talk to most people and they have no real interest in local government (it was ever thus) but those who have are pretty disillusioned. Controversy rages in most of the towns in Pulman’s Country at the moment but there is little faith in the ability of our elected representatives to find solutions. 

I think there is also a degree of frustration among a number of long serving councillors, with some of them having already decided not to seek re-election when we go to the polls next May. The big question is: will their replacements do any better?


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