Comment: Somes ideas for creating truly independent local governmentPosted: June 16, 2012
The consultation on the proposals for codifying the relationship between Councils and central government in Westminster is well under way and registration for our latest public event, “Renaissance of Local Government?” is now open for registration. Entry is free, however book in advance as places are limited! In this post, Sheffield for Democracy activist Richard Shaw offers some thoughts on how to create strong, independent local government, which is controlled not by central government, but by local people.
I think that this consultation is very important and that all people interested in local democracy should consider responding to it. It is important because currently we don’t actually have a right to have a council or any local government, as they are not constitutional bodies, they are merely statutory. This means that Parliament could radically change or abolish any or all councils should it be minded to do so, centralising power and making decision making even further removed from the people those decisions affect. We should respond to this opportunity to safeguard and strengthen our existing councils and to seek to bring decision making even closer to the people where practicable and so I have decided to write about my thoughts on how local government and representation should look and operate. I hope to comment on the individual proposals within the draft code itself in a future post.
The Sustainable Communities Act 2010 and Localism Act 2011 have both tried to make decision making more local, offering a bit more power and responsibility to local government and communities. This is to be welcomed, however any genuine re-invigoration of democracy must begin with all current arrangements and institutions being available for reform, abolition or replacement. The default position must not be with one person or body making all decisions but with all decisions being made by every person directly. What institutions we build and their powers must be derived from thereon, with the express consent of the people. What follows are my suggestions for a new democratic settlement between government, be it local or national, communities and individuals.
1. Sovereignty of decision making
Sovereignty, of the individual and groups of people, is the power to make decisions about about ourselves, for ourselves, free from interference or coercion from others. I believe it is from the idea that no one can make decisions about other people without their consent and involvement in the decision making process, that we design a new framework for government. I believe that:-
- An individual is sovereign over all matters relating to themselves and any decisions which affect solely themselves;
- Consequently, no person may make decisions which affect another, without the consent and involvement of that person in the decision making process. Furthermore that person may withdraw their consent and involvement at any time;
- Likewise, no group may make decisions on matters which only affect a subset of members of the group. Only those affected may make decisions about that which affects them, unless they consent otherwise.
Inevitably it will be necessary for groups of individuals to co-operate to make decisions, taking action as a collective or establishing a body or bodies to make decisions and take action on their behalf, until such time as the people they represent decide otherwise. As a general principle power and decision making should be devolved to the lowest level that is possible to make effective decisions on particular issues; local community-only issues should be addressed locally, regional issues regionally, national issues nationally, and so on. This is known as the principle of subsidiarity. (Please note that whenever I use the term council below, this includes Parish, Town, City, County councils or any other kind of representative body.)
2.1 Establishment of representative bodies, elections and governing structures
- Any group may establish a citizens’ assembly or a council to which they elect representatives, to make decisions and take action on matters affecting that group. This means that if there is an issue that affects only one area then that area may choose to form a body with responsibility and powers with regards to that issue.
- The electorate of a council or assembly may choose the method of electing their representatives to such a body. How a body’s representatives are elected affects no other body and is a matter for that body’s electors to decide. For instance the electors of Sheffield City Council may choose to use STV to elect their council, another council’s electors may choose AMS, and so on… it does not matter as one’s method of election has no effect upon the other.
- The electorate of a Council may decide on the governing structure of that Council. This means that people should be able choose whether they want an executive mayor system, a leader and cabinet system, a committee system or some other structure, because the structure of their council affects no one else but those within its borders.
- The powers of the Council or Assembly may only be decided by their electorate; the electorate deciding which decisions to make directly and which decisions that Council may make on their behalf until such time they decide otherwise. This means that powers cannot be granted or removed by central government, the Council or any other body without the express consent of the people,who may withdraw their consent at any time.
2.2 Decisions making and Powers
- Decisions within a group should only be reached by way of mutual agreement or by ballot if all parties agree to be bound by the result of such a ballot. A group cannot force decisions upon another or make decisions which affect another without the consent of all involved.
- A Council or Assembly may only make decisions that affect solely their electorate. If a decision or matter affects another body or group of people then they should be involved in the decision making process, but only with consent of those affected. So if Sheffield City Council wanted to expand its borders into another area, or changes services that affect people outside its borders, say by causing a service to be withdrawn or altered, then it must reach agreement (rather than just consult) with those affected or their representatives before any changes are made.
- Any person, Council or Assembly that is empowered to make decisions should be empowered with the means to put those decisions into effect; being empowered to raise funds to implement those decisions by taxing or levying those who will be affected by those decisions.
2.3 Co-operation, mergers and devolution
- If a matter affects multiple Assemblies or Councils or some but not all areas within any single Assembly or Council, that area’s electors may choose to establish a body to make decisions on such matters. This means that if there is a problem which affects a few neighbouring wards within a council then the people of those wards have the right to choose whether to establish a body, such as a Community Assembly, to deal with those non-Council-wide issues. Likewise, if there are issues or policy areas which affect say Sheffield, Barnsley, Rotherham and Doncaster, then the people of those areas should be able to choose whether to establish a South Yorkshire-wide council or assembly, or adopt some form of federal or confederal structure in order to deal with those issues.
- The electorate of a Assembly or Council may choose to disestablish that body, either choosing to make decisions directly, establish smaller bodies to empower instead or to pass decision making to a body governing a larger area. For example the people of Sheffield, Barnsley, Doncaster and Rotherham may vote to disestablish their respective metropolitan councils and establish a South Yorkshire Assembly. Each council to be disestablished would require an absolute majority, and the outcome of each vote would not affect any other. So for instance, Sheffield, Barnsley and Rotherham all voting to disestablish their councils and Doncaster choosing not to would create an Assembly consisting of Sheffield, Barnsley and Rotherham with Doncaster remaining a independent council. Of course, the above principles would allow Doncaster to join later and any group of citizens within that assembly may later vote to establish a new assembly or council within the South Yorkshire Assembly area, without leaving the assembly.
These are just a few brief ideas about how I think we should be able to govern ourselves, and I acknowledge that they may be a bit overambitious for the time being, however I think what we should all be striving for is the right and ability to choose how we are governed, whom by and that it is the people who are governed who decide what powers our governments hold over us.
If you have any thoughts on the draft code from the Select Committee or on my own ideas above then please feel free to comment below and/or submit your own suggestions to the Select Committee by emailing email@example.com before Friday 5th October 2012.
Richard Shaw is a member of the Steering Group of Sheffield for Democracy, having previously been involved in the Sheffield says Yes! to Fairer Votes campaign, and is also a local activist for the Liberal Democrats. Sheffield for Democracy welcomes supporters of all political parties or none. We aim to engage and encourage greater participation of the public in democracy at a local level in Sheffield and encourage young people to become more interested in politics by making them aware of how relevant it is to their lives. If you would like to contribute an article to our website please contact us.