Democracy in local government; sounds like a good idea


Conservative Party Spring Forum

Councils are often accused of being a law unto themselves, particularly when it comes to the amount of council tax they collect and what they choose to spend the money on.

Eric Pickles, communities minister, is the latest politician to wade in to the row as ministers are proposing to reduce the amount by which councils can increase council tax to just 1.5%. If councils want to increase it by any more they would have to seek approval from residents.

Pickles wants to clamp down on councils that have consistently hiked the tax by just under the current 2% threshold over the past three years.

He has taken particular umbrage with these councils, calling them 'democracy dodgers' and Pickles wants to bring them back into line and make them kowtow to central government rather than making their own, often punitive, rules and decisions without so much as a heads-up for local residents.

This is great news for individuals who will hopefully have a say on their council tax bills. It could be assumed that if councils have to seek approval from residents then that would mean the councils would have to be far more transparent about exactly what they spend our hard-earned cash on.

We could even hope that councils would be forced to spend our money more wisely if they had to explain their bank balances - no more useless team building away days or expensive hotel stays for councillors and staff.

However, the Pickles' plan does jar against the government's increasing tendency to give local councils more control over their budgets and spending.

Local governments have already been given responsibility for handing out council tax exemptions and emergency fund pots of cash, both of which help the most vulnerable in society. To give that responsibility on one hand and take it away with the another by capping council tax rises further doesn't seem to fit the plans that the central government is introducing.

Pickles has got the right idea in making local government more transparent. We need to give residents more power over where councils spend their cash and ensure that along with necessary provisions such as rubbish collections, money is spent to enhance communities and benefit the people that live there.

There is a fear however that the coalition will continue the status quo, and further increase local government powers, while ignoring the needs of the people that have to live under the decision a handful of 'democracy-dodgers' make.