May 5 Elections: Will Anything Change?

As many have noticed I have not written on this site for an unusually long time. It is not so much because there is no news to report as that all the news is the same news as ever – bumbling council officers, useless councillors and a general degradation in the upkeep of the area and enforcement of the law. Every story seems to somehow be a reincarnation of the same themes and conclusions.

Over this time I have instead been reflecting on the troubles the council cause and where exactly the blame lies. The problems themselves are clear to all – but what ties them all together, and why does it seem so inevitable and impossible for those problems to be fixed?

I have become increasingly convinced that the petty local politics of the area are more or less irrelevant to the incompetence and poor decision-making ability of the council. That in fact, who ‘runs’ the council makes very little difference at all.

It is constantly bemoaned that the council has ‘concentrated its power’ into the hands of a select few, or even just one individual, and that spreading this power among all councillors would improve the functioning and accountability of the council. This has even been an election pledge for some would-be councillors.

But what power does the council even wield as an entity?

It is able to re-route traffic and sell council houses, or encourage developers to build towers. But what of legislating or raising taxes to pursue its policies in a meaningful and concerted way, or fixing its shortfall of expertise and general staff? That power does not lie with the council itself, but with central government.

The ancient adage goes: ‘with great power comes great responsibility’. Over decades central government has pursued an agenda of ‘decentralisation’ and ‘devolution’, but in the case of local government, it seems that while responsibility has been decentralised in abundance, real power has not.

Now the council is in a situation where it must enforce a wide variety of laws and regulations devolved to it, but simply does not have the finances to do so. Nor does it have the power to raise those finances. Incompetence is often considered a social problem peculiar to local authority, but it is surely an economic one – if you can’t pay for the required expertise, of course you get incompetents doing the work.

And without the power to effect real change on a local level, why would any ambitious and competent individual stand as councillor, and why would any normal person have any interest whatsoever in who controls the council?

This is where I think the fundamental problem lies. If the council had the power to effect real change – both positive and negative – to people’s lives, there would be far greater interest and concern as to who ran the council, who stood for councillor, and the general debate and media coverage of their actions. Those enfranchised to vote would have greater power and responsibility over the evolution of where they lived, and would feel greater impetus to vote in a responsible and informed way.

This would stimulate greater local media readership, and hence more advertising revenue and more journalistic resources to investigate and write about the council. In turn we would have a more educated public and a more cautious government.

But as it is now, the institution of local government is diluted and impotent, only useful for those wanting to gain ‘experience’ in the hope of one day making the jump to Westminster. We see this all the time in the irritating speeches, motions, and votes on issues like Ukraine and Europe which while of national importance, have no local relevance whatsoever. This is children playing at politics, not running a government.

The post of councillor is an impossible one to fulfil. What should be considered a full time job and one that requires demonstrable expertise and experience, it is officially considered a part-time role and paid at a salary of £10,300. The leader of the opposition is entitled to a salary of only £27,105.

Compare this to an MP’s salary of £81,932 and the PM’s salary of £161,866.

In light of these figures, it’s understandable that the vast majority of councillors don’t reply or seem to consider the post a title rather than a public office – it is paid as such and when stripped of any decision-making power, what remains really is only the title.

The council has of course made headlines in its controversial policies regarding redevelopment and traffic schemes. It seems like power but is it? For a council without funds the enabling of development pays back in dividends, with the council at one point holding £100M in payments from developers, an eighth of its annual budget. And only with those funds can it afford its traffic and public realm schemes. This is power borrowed from the private sector, not power intrinsic to the council.

On some level I think the way the council have pursued these policies in such a brash and offensive way is no mistake, but perhaps intended as a ‘show of power’ to local communities. Power which it doesn’t wield itself, but that which is siphoned off from development corporations as and when their towers get built.

For without development and traffic schemes, what exactly does the council have to its name? It has failed in its delivery of affordable housing, failed in its delivery in housing as a whole, and has little else to its public reputation except fly-tipping, litter, and incompetence. The stories about development and traffic deflect attention away from the fundamental problems, and give a superficial impression of a competent and perhaps even powerful government. A cabinet ‘distracted’ by more ‘important’ matters, not one without the ability to fix them.

There are of course real social benefits to development. It may be difficult to understand that when a tower is being built outside your window, but a high level of economic activity and development is genuinely in the interests of this society as a whole. Economic power is what allows this country to put sanctions upon another nation without feeling the fear of retaliation or indeed invasion. We take that for granted here but only a minority of nations have that power.

I have often wondered why central government continues to allow the Section 106 mechanism to be abused by local authorities, but my guess is that it functions as a ‘local tax’ on development, which gives local authorities an economic incentive to permit larger and larger buildings. This in turn fulfils central government’s ambitions for development, and the associated increase in tax revenues through the economic activity that construction and development bring.

The fundamental problem is that local authorities pursue the development of buildings without any regard to the economic development of communities as a whole. Time and again campaigners highlight the damage that is done to historic centres, and the long-term impact that can have upon the economic diversity and vitality of an area like Central London. Tourism in London alone generates approximately £33B in economic activity, more than forty times Camden’s budget.

But why would that matter to the council? Increased employment and increased sales of goods and services are all taxable to central government rather than local government. Camden has no financial incentive whatsoever to protect or enhance tourism, and hence no economic incentive to preserve and enhance our historic centres. All that matters in financial terms is the delivery of large tower blocks, regardless of where they are located or the impact they may have.

Even a 1% local ‘tourist tax’ could raise in excess of £30M annually for the council, far more than the income it receives through developer contributions. Such taxes and incentives, executed at a local level, would tie the council financially to the reality of life and activity in their areas. With greater power would come greater responsibility.

To answer my original question, will anything change after the May 5 elections? I think not, but we all know that anyway. Even if the Conservatives or Greens somehow won all the seats, we would see no real change to our lives or the way that Camden is run. Perhaps a new logo, motto, or a different colour bin bag. But the power to make real change does not lie here, it lies with Parliament.

2 thoughts on “May 5 Elections: Will Anything Change?

  1. Sadly for all of us your analysis is “spot-on”. Compared with, say Germany, the Netherlands, Canada or the USA, Britain is one of the most centralised states in the western world with power concentrated in an inefficient, self-serving Central Government which rewards intergenerational incompetence with index-linked pensions and “gongs all around”. This inhibits local “learning by doing’, responsibility and innovation in local governance – factors which are common in decentralised nation states.

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  2. You raise an interesting issue here, Owen, and a rather depressing one as it is unlikely that central government is going to do anything about it. It is also one that the general public will not be aware of so there will be no impetus for change. It is depressing to be going forward with the same old and to be powerless to instigate change.

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