Committee system launched political careers

7th March 1997 at 00:00
Vernon Bogdanor (TES, February 7) has a very poor grasp of the problems facing local government. The committee system which he wishes to sweep away has never prevented the emergence of strong local politics, as the careers of Ken Livingstone, David Blunkett and Derek Hatton showed in the 1980s.

Even John Major cut his teeth in local politics, while further back the emergence of figures of national stature like Joseph Chamberlain and George Lansbury via local councils shows that viable local democracy is not incompatible with a distinct political identity.

The current malaise of local government has its roots in the determination of a centralising Tory government to destroy any independent local politics, and against this even the effective campaign of the Greater London Council was powerless.

The fashion for elected mayors would do little to reverse the alienation of voters from politics. By concentrating power in the hands of a single elected dictator, surrounded by professional advisors making decisions behind closed doors, the route is open for corruption and manipulation in ways that are difficult in a system with the checks and balances operated by committees.

It is difficult to see what Professor Bogdanor is talking about when he deplores the replacement of elected figures by appointed managers. This is precisely what happens in a system of elected mayors, where patronage replaces election and scrutiny.

If the involvement of active citizens is to be achieved, local government needs to be reformed not by abolishing the committee system in favour of a single autocratic mayor, but its opening up to local people.

There is a powerful argument for committees to include elected representatives of consumers and providers, as well as councillors with overall strategic responsibilities. In education, teachers, parents and governors all have a role which would be best served by having representatives on the local education committee. In this way a real participatory democracy would be created.

The concentration of all power in an autocratic mayor is fashionable only among those who wish to limit citizen participation, not extend it.

TREVOR FISHER 49 Lovatt Street Stafford

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