Cllr Gwen Belcher, who coordinates the Green party on Stroud Distrct Council writes:
There's a strong case to be made for unitary local government, but it must be done in the right way with greater control for voters over local decisions.
Local government has never recovered from the loss of powers under Thatcher. Blair has continued this process. No other national government exerts such central control over local services nor has such large units of local government. This latest move must not be another example of Labour's centralisation and control-freakery.
The disadvantages of our over-centralised government and oversized local councils are widely understood. Research shows the greater the devolution, the more dynamic the economy. Government works best when government is closest to the governed.
In France for example power used to be very centralised with the Education Minister even knowing what was being taught in each school at what time of day. In 1982 a dramatic change occured leading to Parish size-areas running public services, raising taxes etc. In Italy, Scandinavia and Spain the changes were even greater.
Local government cannot become more competent and legitimate without greater devolution. Who wants to join local Councils, which in the past 25 years have seen their ability to raise revenue cut from 60% to 25%, £30 bn of services transferred to unelected quangos, and its other services micromanaged from the centre (ii)?
In the UK every opinion poll on public services puts us at the bottom in Europe, but we dont have the worst services. What we do have is no local control and that can lead to little pride and less involvement from the community.
Greens want local governments that people can identify with, and which can respond to local needs and circumstances. Local authorities need power to take real decisions that affect the local area and to be held to account by the electors if they get it wrong. That also means reform of our unjust electoral system.
In Stroud for example the Green party has stood in 109 District elections, the majority in four cornered contests: the average vote was 24% where we stood yet we still only have 4 out of 51 seats. In many of the larger wards in Stroud District, with two or three councillors and with the popular votes split nearly evenly between several parties all the elected councillors are from one party - that is not democracy (iii).
Our present system creates greatly exaggerated majorities and parties winning control with less than half the votes, and occasionally fewer than their opponents. The system also means many believe their vote is wasted and will not make a difference. This discourages participation in democracy and many crucial issues like climate change just don't get discussed at election times.
We urgently need a proportional representation system, that will help re-engage people in politics and the running of our local services and communities - without such a change, moves to unitary authorities will bring few benefits. Greens will support the move to unitary authorities if it means local democracy is really improved (iv).
Green party Stroud District councillor
Other useful articles on the debate re unitary authorities:
(i) On average British councils serve populations of 120,000 compared to less than 10,000 in Germany, US and France. The differences at ward level is even more dramatic: some British wards number 15,000 people, while on the continent the figure is as low as 400. The result is that the people feel more divorced from councils while turnout at elections continues to shrink.
(ii) The average age of councillors is now 58. Most are retired or unemployed. In their heyday, they were able to draw on young and old. See The Guardian leader comment, 'Labour must learn to let go' at:
(iii) Its also not democratic at the national level - the current system also allowed Labour at the last election to be returned nationally with a large majority despite the fact that for every person who voted Labour, almost two voted for other parties and two didn't vote.
(iv) Green party policy on local government "PA300 Our preference will be to abolish the County Councils after the transfer of their present functions to District Councils and to confederations of Districts. However, the option of retaining a County Council will be open to the electorate through referenda. Where there is public dissatisfaction with boundaries, consultation and (where necessary) referenda will establish the most popular arrangement. This process will be overseen by the Constitutional Commission."