Friday, 3 May 2013

How to reinvigorate local democracy

When he was appointed, the acting Chief Executive of Cornwall Council said that he believed we should "take the politics out" of local government and Cornwall Council. In some areas he seems to have got what he wished for because many town and parish councils don't even have enough candidates nominated to fill the vacancies they have and, in the majority of cases, those who put themselves up for their parish council will just be appointed without any contest whatsoever.

I don't think that is a good thing. However unpopular politics might often be, without it there is no democracy. Those who say they want to take politics out of local government are actually saying they want to take the democracy out of local government. Cornwall now has a large unitary council which would function more smoothly if there were a single political party with an overall majority so that it could deliver a clear agenda backed by a mandate from local people.

In his defence, I am sure what the Chief Executive of Cornwall Council was actually complaining about was political point scoring between rivals which is an understandable sentiment coming for an officer in the Council but is also a bit like farmers complaining about the weather.

Many people forget that political parties are voluntary organisations. The leaflets that are pushed through letter boxes are paid for by voluntary donations from local members. They are delivered by unpaid volunteers who go out in all weathers to try to help the candidates they believe in. I have been out with volunteers all week. The candidates who come knocking on doors are also unpaid. In each ward, all but one of them will fail to achieve their aim of being elected and many will feel that their efforts were in vain. I take my hat off to the unpaid volunteers in all our political parties (but especially my own) without whom democracy would not work.

After these elections, we need to have a serious look at what can be done to reinvigorate our town and parish councils. Firstly, in future we should have parish council elections separate from Cornwall Council elections. Let's hold them at the same time as the next Police Commissioner election in three years time to end the confusion voters feel about who is standing for what and to allow over stretched political parties to commit far more time than they currently do to finding and promoting good candidates for parish and town councils. If we want parish councils to develop a stronger sense of purpose then we need proper contests and, yes, political parties.

Secondly, we should give parish and town councils a stronger say on how elements of Cornwall Council's budget is spent in their area so that they have more power and are therefore likely to persuade more people to want to get involved.

George Eustice MP
Member of Parliament for Camborne, Redruth and Hayle House of Commons, London, SW1A 0AA 020 72197032