Only re-connect with local democracy

21st November 1997, 12:00am
David Bell


Only re-connect with local democracy
Over the next few months, the Government will be undertaking a major consultation exercise on the future of local democracy. Already, there have been some significant pronouncements on local government including the prospect of directly-elected mayors, and the possibility of intervention in poorly-performing authorities. At the same time, there is a recognition that increased public participation in, and respect for, local government is equally important if the revitalisation of democracy is to come about.

Given the Government's agenda for schools, it may be tempting to stand back and see these developments as less relevant to the education sector. However, as long as education represents around half of local government's expenditure, it will be essential for us to engage in the debate about local democracy. Otherwise, there will be an increasing temptation to remove democratic oversight of education, given the central direction being imposed on the system.

Education is particularly thorny problem in this context. It could be argued that the advent of local management of schools has given citizens a more direct stake in local services. However, the opposite case is equally strong. There is an argument that LMS has undermined local democracy as citizens are now encouraged to believe that their interests in education do not extend beyond the school gate. In addition, there is a danger that education is seen to be the exclusive preserve of parents even though the service's successes and failures directly impact on every citizen.

The problem is further compounded by a widespread view among councillors that their election provides them with the legitimacy which underpins all local decisions about education. Some officers share this view and would not take kindly to the suggestion that elections are not the be-all and end-all of democratic legitimacy.

Yet, there is a case to answer when you consider the consistently low turn-outs which undermine the claim of legitimacy. Furthermore, in many parts of the country there is insufficient political debate about important educational issues where opposition is weak.

On top of all these legitimate constitutional questions, there needs to be a recognition that local government still has much to prove to ministers, some of whom are sceptical about its capacity to lead educational improvements. The Government seems prepared to consider a variety of models of the delivery of local services based on the pragmatic approach being adopted by the Prime Minister. Essentially, the test now is what works, not what's there.

So, how should the education service respond to the challenge of revitalising local democracy?

First, there are plenty of innovative ways in which the views of local people can be sought. Structured questionnaires, citizens' juries and focus groups all provide useful information over and above the judgment of voters at the ballot box. Such approaches also allow for a more focused look at certain key issues. They are particularly helpful when an authority is considering major long term developments like new schooling.

Secondly, authorities have got much to do to improve the quality of their communications. Many are still written in local government jargon. There is a need to look beyond the traditional consultation documents and move into areas such as press and radio advertising, poster campaigns, and newspapers. A concerted campaign is necessary if we are to achieve a better informed population.

Thirdly, and more controversially, there may be a case for examining the possibility of directly-elected education authorities. For some, this will be uncomfortably close to the old Inner London Education Authority.

However, this should not act as a brake on thinking. The Government has shown, through its proposal for directly elected mayors in London, that it is prepared to think in radical new ways about old problems. A directly elected body for education may have a number of advantages.

It would demonstrate, in a very powerful way, the Government's commitment to education. It would mean that there would be no hiding place under the "cover" of local government for poorly performing authorities. It may also improve the quality of debate about education matters in a particular area and promote a more dynamic link between local politicians and locally managed institutions.

There are downsides. Many officers and members would argue that education is more properly managed as part of a range of local government services. This is a powerful argument when considering the wider social and economic regeneration of local communities. Others would say that local government has had enough reorganisation to last it for at least another 20 years!

Equally, of course, the Government could experiment with this system in different parts of the country - as it has shown that it may be prepared to do in other areas of our consitutional arrangements, for example, regional assemblies.

Another option would be to look at specific levies to fund particular projects. American local government is well used to having referenda where the electorate is invited to vote for a tax increase to fund a specific major capital project.

While the Government may be anxious about the impact on the Public Sector Borrowing Requirement, such a system would have to be tightly constrained. For example, there would be no question that revenue funding could come from such a source. In addition, such schemes would have to be for a particular capital project of a certain size.

Yet, for all the imaginative solutions that might develop, the most important change of all is one of mindset. It is too easy to claim that local government already has adequate consultation mechanisms. However, it is easy to see why people do not come out in their hundreds to consultation meetings which are held on a wet evening in a draughty school hall.

The onus does not lie with the public. The responsibility is with elected members and officers to find new ways of consulting that properly re-connect local democracy and local communities. Without a revitalisation of our democratic systems, "education, education, education" is likely to sink in a sea of apathy.

David Bell is the chief education officer of Newcastle City Council

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