The price of power

18th May 2001 at 01:00
A WESTMINSTER election campaign may not be the moment to notice, but the next local government elections are now scheduled to take place in 2003 alongside those for the Scottish Parliament. Postponed without adequate explanation for a year, they will receive as little attention as in 1999.

The predicament of local government is exemplified in the resignation of Paul Williamson, the councillor in charge of Edinburgh education. In his 30s, he cannot live on the income he receives as a councillor with a full-time commitment. Some leading councillors have a Holyrood seat in mind, but Mr Williamson prefers to move to the security (and pension prospects) of an official's post in a London council.

Leading the education service of a large authority is much more demanding than being a backbench MSP but the rewards are drastically less. Local government has barely moved from the days when it was dominated by business or retired people and trade union officials. There are various solutions to Mr Willimson's predicament. One lies in the Conservatives' belief that council involvement in services such as education is overblown. Making schools directly responsible to central government would render councillors redundant or at least reduce their workload. But the Tories have not explained who would undertake the many functions dealt with at council level - headteachers, bursars, civil servants?

Another answer is to follow sport and dispense with "sham amateurism". Councillors receive income according to the hours of service they give. Many are full time, or nearly so. So why not professionalise at least those who have the heaviest workload?

That would make sense in the cities and other large authorities, but not across the whole country. Which takes us back to the structure of local government. At least until after the next Scottish elections, no one wants to tinker with the reorganisation of the nineties, but in a small country with a devolved Parliament 32 councils are too many.

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