Centralisation is killing off local democracy
The Stronger Towns Fund looks more like a bribe that is using public money for political ends, than an attempt by the government to actually create an economy that “works for every community” as claimed. The promise of local funding specifically to MPs in traditionally Labour-supporting areas is the dangling of a carrot for political leverage, rather than a commitment to robust and healthy local democratic institutions. This shows us two things about democratic decay in Britain: firstly, the power imbalance sewn into the fabric of British democracy has left the survival of local democracy hedged on the political whims of central government; and secondly, this vast power wielded by the UK government is being used to privatise local democracy. The powers that be have no long-term interest in preserving local democracy, and the UK’s constitution means we are at their mercy.
Councils have persistently begged for cash as they teeter on the brink of collapse, after successive government cuts have seen councils’ budgets nearly halve between 2010 and 2015 alone. This has all come at the same time as the demand for services is rising. Many councils have been pushed into bankruptcy, while others now operate with bare bones services.
The £1.6bn Stronger Towns Fund is more a bowl of gruel than olive branch. In 2019/20 alone there are £1.3bn of local government cuts planned, so £1.6bn spread out over several years is a drop in the ocean when compared to the £19bn a year that the Institute for Fiscal Studies estimates is needed to balance the impact of austerity. Clare Moody MEP pointed out that Cornwall alone received £80m a year from EU Structural Funds, whilst the Stronger Towns Fund would give the entire South West region £33m for a period of up to 7 years. The government has failed to decide whether or how EU Structural Funds, which offer financial support to the most deprived areas, will be replaced after Brexit.
In announcing the fund Theresa May tweeted that her government wants to “make our economy work for every community”. The announcement comes just weeks before Brexit, and also happens to target the leave-voting constituencies of Labour MPs who May needs onside to get her deal over the line. Given this cash boost gets nowhere close to having a meaningful impact on councils that have been decimated by the government’s own spending cuts, it is hard, with all these things in mind, to conclude that the fund is anything other than cynical political theatre.
Too much power in too few hands
The UK is one of the most centralised democracies in the world. This has made it possible for the UK government to decimate local democratic institutions and use public money as political bribes.
The fund demonstrates exactly how the survival of local government is hedged on the political interests of central government. The ‘Magic Money Tree’ can after all sprout cash - not to bolster services for some of the most vulnerable and disadvantaged groups, but to serve the interests of the political establishment, who are dangling cash in the hope of buying votes.
The devolution deals of the 1990s went some way towards devolving power to Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales. But these deals have their limitations, with Westminster ultimately retaining power at the centre in many regards. Moreover, England is one of the few of the only democratic nations to have no regional tier of democratic government between the local and national level.
Centralisation is written into the DNA of British democracy. In the ‘rules of the game’ that constitute the British constitution, central government is bestowed with tremendous power. There are no constitutional protections for local government, which means local democracy can be abolished by the government of the day. While the government has not abolished local government in statute, this is the logical conclusion of the policies it now pursues.
The privatisation of democracy
Local government is being starved of cash, asset stripped, and hollowed out. The defunding of local government, and by extension the slow but steady abolition of local democracy, is not a by-product of the plan - it is the plan. And there is nothing to stop central government from completing this project.
You can see the privatisation of democracy etched into the structure of the Stronger Towns Fund. The assertion that the fund is meant to “give communities a greater say in their future” is deeply misleading, considering the funds will be diverted not to democratically run and publicly accountable councils, but to independent Local Enterprise Partnerships (LEPs). Public money is being put into the hands of private interests, not the community.
Local government needs money to deliver services, but local democracy is about so much more than service delivery. Democracy cannot be confined to the voting booth, it must be living and breathing or it will die. Well-designed and well-funded local government enables local people to have their voices heard on local issues, and ensure local communities can hold to account those making decisions that affect them.
The ideology of austerity ultimately demands the privatisation of democracy. There is no need for democracy when decisions and services can be put to the free market. Voice and choice becomes dehumanised, and no value is found in anything that is not a financial transaction. If you can afford social care, then you receive social care. There is no need for public libraries, because those who can afford books can choose to purchase them.
Local government is the cog that makes the democratic machine whir. Local democracy is not an optional add-on, nor can it be replaced by unaccountable markets. Yet the political establishment is using over-centralised power to slowly but steadily abolish local government - and local democracy - through the austerity programme. This might be a bleak statement to end on, but the state of local democracy is unavoidably bleak. Local democracy is worth saving, but if we want to save it we need to act now.