What price democracy?

Earlier today I received a phone call on behalf of Babergh District Council, asking for my views on the proposed merger of Babergh with Mid Suffolk district council. Sadly I only got to answer the preliminary questions, as it turns out that they have already filled their quota of people in my age group. (A shame, I’d welcome the chance to give Babergh some feedback on this particular issue.)

As regular readers of the Suffolk Free Press (Sudbury edition) will be aware, Babergh’s Tory council has got its knickers in a twist. Late last year the council’s cabinet discussed proposals to merge with Mid Suffolk council, in order to make further cost savings.  Given that merger must involve the dissolution of a council (and the loss of council seats), you might reasonably expect that this issue would have been discussed robustly and widely. Oh no. The council’s cabinet (just seven out of 42 councillors) discussed it, apparently of the view that at this stage the proposal didn’t need to be discussed by anyone else (who might, presumably, disagree with them).

There’s a back story. This isn’t the first time Babergh has talked about merging. 

In 2011, the council put the merger to the vote in a local referendum, and lost. In 2014, Babergh, which until then had a proud history of returning independent councillors, became a Tory authority for the first time. To celebrate, the Tories adopted a cabinet model of working (which gives a minority of councillors more control) and proceeded with what they might like to term a ‘radical agenda’ which included, of course, revisiting the proposal to merge with Mid Suffolk. Unlike much of the rest of their agenda, merging to form a bigger council may or may not have merits. But it’s impossible to tell.  The rules have now changed and Babergh are no longer required to hold a local referendum on council mergers, or to tell us very much at all.

(As an aside, the change in the rules since 2011 must be a rare example of forward planning from our Conservative governent. The plan goes something like this:

  1. get rid of the requirement for councils to consult residents about getting changes to their council
  2. more councils (or more specifically, more Tory councils in the shires) merge with each other
  3. merged councils have fewer councillors overall. That brings some small cost savings (savings have already been made from sharing services and staff, after all).
  4. fewer people feel connected with their councillor, as they cover a wider area (residents are less likely to see them let alone know them in rural areas). So fewer residents see the point of voting in local elections or know who to complain to when things aren’t going well
  5. More councils return a Tory council for evermore.

At least, that is I presume the intention.)

I do find it baffling, in a country that prides itself on its democratic processes, that our councils can dissolve themselves and merge at whim. In behaving in this way it’s as if the only thing that matters is how cheaply the councils can deliver a set of basic services, rather than demonstrating what it means to be the local part of our democratically elected system of government (though the question ‘what are councils for?’ is beyond the scope of this post!). Thankfully in this case Labour and other opposition councillors applied council rules to ensure that the issue was properly debated and scrutinised by full council. The consequences of all this are 1) that Babergh commissioned ComRes to carry out a phone survey of a representative sample of residents about the merger (the reason I was called), 2) the council leader was deposed, 3) a new leader was installed (who now insists he is in favour of a referendum) – and the Tories are in complete disarray. And all the while, they are distracted from doing something that might actually be useful.

I can’t help thinking that they get away with all this because few of us know what councils do – unless or until we happen to need their services (or at least services other than refuse collection). And of course what councils do isn’t at all the same as what councils could do if they properly exercised their strategic leadership role in their locality (and, of course, if they weren’t continually subject to funding cuts by central govenrment, which is what has ultimately caused all this trouble).

Back to the phone survey. Now it doesn’t take much effort to realise that the easiest way to get the desired answers from any survey is to ask questions that don’t allow for any other kind of answers, as a number of local residents have already found out.  When I asked the ComRes caller what he would have asked me, had I been eligible to continue with the survey, he said ‘what I like’ and ‘what I don’t like’ about the area, as well as my view on the proposed merger. Not exactly seizing the opportunity to inform residents of what the council does, what they might like it to do – or even how to make sure they are registered to vote. A letter in last week’s Suffolk Free Press suggests this survey is costing Babergh £20,000 – the price to be paid for this pretense of democracy. Even if Babergh were to recover their democratic sensibilities and afford a whole referendum, real democracy is well beyond the current council’s reach.

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