27 December 2007

Referenda equals bureaucracy

Like Iain Dale, I support the principles of Direct Democracy and, in particular, the idea of delegating decision making to the lowest possible level. But his post of today supporting a bigger role for local referenda is, in my view, a step too far.

We had a referendum about an elected Mayor in Fenland in 2005. It arose because one individual had an axe to grind on this issue, despite Fenland's growing reputation at the time. To his credit he obtained the necessary number of signatures and the referendum was held. The inevitable result was 3 to 1 against an elected mayor, largely because the idea is just simply not practical in Fenland; we are now an "excellent" Authority, recently acclaimed by the Audit Commission as the fastest improving in the Country. 2005 was a critical point; that referendum could have completely halted the momentum that had been created in Fenland to improve and deliver excellent services.

Before the debate was held there was no particular desire expressed for an elected mayor apart from that one individual, and his actions contributed to a significant increase to the Council Tax to fund an inevitable result. I want to say at this point, this is not a criticism of that individual, he did what he thought was right, it was the system itself that was wrong.

I think this goes far deeper than this, local politicians are already significantly undermined by the vast host of bureaucratic partnerships which dominate the local political scene. Whilst it is right that local Government should work with partners, the massive bureaucracy and the huge funding streams that pass through them actually undermine the role of the local elected member, people don't vote for Councillors only to find them unable to act, they vote for them to act and make decisions; of course they should consult, but they should not be bound by a bureaucracy which will serve to give credibility to those who shout loudest rather than those that have the best, most informed position.

I wonder how something like the Local Development Framework come out of such a process? I would imagine that this would be one of the hot topics for which referenda would be common. It is also one where parochial issues would massively influence the way people voted. Whilst I am uncomfortable with how the Government have come up with their housing numbers and with the way they are allocating them and funding growth, a referendum on the LDF would make delivery of any sort of house building virtually impossible and the massive shortage of Social Housing that exists would continue ad infinitum. (actually the LDF is a case for less National influence and more local decision-making).

My own view about local democracy is simple, give Councillors and local authorities the power, stop interfering, let them make decisions and hold them accountable at the ballot box.

The one area where I would divert from this view, is where changes in democratic processes are proposed. As an example, I do not believe any sort of Unitary should be created without the support of the people that are affected.