Why is hope in our political system draining away? Because Westminster still thinks it knows best

If we want to restore faith in politics, power needs to come from Westminster to communities. Giving local councils meaningful power is where this could start.

Last week the MPs debated how much cash local councils in England will have to spend on their services for the next year. After 10 years of harsh spending cuts and austerity, councillors as well as service users and community groups, worry about what this announcement will mean for their community. Sam Coates, who served as a county councillor from 2013-7 reflects on how the current system in England is accelerating a lack of faith in democracy.

Disabled people protesting outside Norfolk County Hall

Disabled people protesting outside Norfolk County Hall

In the UK council budgets decided by central (or devolved) government, with little autonomy to raise their own funds locally. It is England however where the system of finance is the most centralised.

The budget cuts had meant reductions in support for homeless people were biting, and older people who need support to live independently were losing all kinds of services.

When I was campaigning for election, my party colleagues and I had hundreds of conversations with voters about whether these service reductions was something we wanted to happen, or whether we were willing to stand up for our most vulnerable neighbours, by chipping in a bit extra Council tax to cancel out cuts to the local budget. It was a stance that resonated, and I was elected comfortably.

But what came next was a much bigger hurdle. Just as Westminster was aggressively cutting grants to provide council services, it was restricting ways to make up for any shortfalls locally. Until then, local authorities in England could increase Council Tax by pretty much as much as they liked, unless the minister in London decided a particular increase was excessive. But now, the government stopped Councils increasing the tax by more than 2% in a year unless won a local referendum on the rise. More recently this limit has been loosened, but only because of widespread warnings that the social care system is on the verge of collapse.

None of them, regardless of party, said they wanted to make the cuts, but that they had been imposed from on high, and there was no alternative.

I saw the effects of this policy directly contribute to deeper cuts to local services, and the harm they caused locally. I saw multiple Councillors, left and right, say they would like to raise more from Council Tax, but they were frightened of losing a vote and the expense of running the referendum. None of them, regardless of party, said they wanted to make the cuts, but that they had been imposed from on high, and there was no alternative.

I made the case that other councillors should be brave, call the vote and go out to make the case for the services that had been cut by central government. Unfortunately that never happened, but the fact that services for homeless people, older people, and things many people used to consider basic in a community disappeared was perhaps one of the most under-discussed outrages of the way our democracy works.

This is not the only way local councils are prevented from taking meaningful decisions. Westminster can impose new responsibilities, remove existing ones, and decide whether or not to provide the extra funding needed. In England, there’s been a trend towards more grant money being tied to specific services, reducing local autonomy even further.

Communities and their elected representatives should not be at the whim of Westminster in this way. They should be able to have a local conversation about what services they need to provide and how they’re going to pay for it.

The good news is that, away from England, things are changing. Scotland & Wales do not have the same restrictions on Council Tax. In Wales, the government there has reduced the levels of funding earmarked for a particular purpose, giving councils the freedom to do things their way. Scottish councils are also being given the freedom to introduce a tourist tax on holiday accommodation.

These changes show that when new political bodies emerge, they are closer to the people and are willing to try out new things. If we really want to restore engagement and participation in our politics, we need to accelerate this sort of radical change. We need a political revolution to replace the decaying, over-centralised Westminster system. Unlock Democracy wants to see a new constitution for the UK, written by and for the people.

Image credit: Roger Blackwell (CC BY 2.0)