Friday, May 02, 2008

Local elections?

It is a measure of the health of our democracy that yesterday's local elections have been treated almost universally by our political classes and the media as a vast, publicly-funded opinion poll of our provincial government.

The most exciting news of the evening for the groupescules, therefore, was the analysis of the clutch of results then in, to produce a figure to represent the percentage national vote. This was then translated into a prediction for the next electorally-mandated reshuffle, when we get to decide which politicians we send to Brussels for their instructions.

For us, on the edges of far-flung Bradford – two hundred miles physically from the capital and a million miles in ideology – the opinion poll election was a non-event. We received but one election leaflet, from the local incumbent, and nothing else. Should we have been passive electors (the majority) we would have no idea what our respective candidates stood for – not that we have anyway.

In any case, the idea of local politics is a hollow joke. Living in an urban village on the outskirts of the city, with a population of 15,000, we are not entitled to our own administration. Instead, we are subsumed into the monstrosity of Bradford Metropolitan District Council with a population of over half a million, the administration of which might just as well be on another planet.

The city itself is dying on its feet. Owing to dubious planning decisions and over-ambitions (to say nothing of inept) development plans, the heart has been ripped out of the centre, leaving few shops of any worth.

With limited parking, rapacious parking wardens and an air of menace conveyed by wandering gangs of Asian (and white) youths, the place is not one to visit unless you are in dire need – or have been summonsed to the magistrates court. Few from our part of town ever visit the centre. We do our shopping and business elsewhere.

The rot started in the 70s, with the Walker "reforms" of local government. These destroyed the small local authorities, creating the monstrous giants that still exist today.

But there were other changes afoot. When precisely one change happened is lost in the mists of time, but we used to have a system whereby local businesses paid their property taxes to their local councils. In return, business owners had the choice of casting their local vote either in their place of residence, or where their businesses were located, a system which led to a healthy network of independent councillors, beholden to no political party.

Now, businesses taxes are grabbed by central government, which pools the national income and doles out differing proportions to local councils according to an arcane formula which no one understands, bearing no relation to the amounts actually extorted.

As a rule of thumb though, the system seems to work on the basis that, the more you pay, the less you get. As a result, business-owners are disfranchised, victims of taxation without representation – the complaint articulated by Washington car drivers on their number plates (pictured).

Generally, something like 60 percent of each council's overall income comes from the government in London, but much more of its expenditure is dictated (and tightly controlled) by fiat from Whitehall. There is, of course, no local sales tax. That is levied by the London government as Value Added Tax, standardised nationally according to a system dictated by Brussels.

Administration is also tightly controlled, increasingly down to the frequency with which waste is collected, evidenced by a report in The Daily Telegraph which tells us of the steady march of fortnightly bin collection, driven by the EU's waste framework directive and the financial penalties incumbent therein.

That which is not controlled, directly or indirectly from Brussels, is micromanaged from Whitehall, while the day-to-day management of local authorities is mainly vested in overpaid officials and a small claque of paid councillors operating in a system known as "cabinet government". Ordinary councillors do not get a look in, are not even allowed to talk to ordinary officials and must make appointments with departmental directors if they wish to discuss council affairs.

That, and much more – not least the depredations of the local government code of conduct, which further emasculates local councillors – has stripped any meaning from local government. It exists in name only. Small wonder, the majority of voters simply do not bother to turn out – they know enough about the system to have realised that their votes will not change anything of any significance.

So it is that the elections have indeed become a vast, media-fuelled opinion poll, less accurate than some as the sample is self-selecting and therefore entirely unrepresentative. But, whether or not they reflect national sentiment – and well they might – they have very little to do with how we are governed locally. Their main purpose, it seems, is to provide entertainment for the political classes and the media.

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