Engaging with Parliament: An Association member's experience
I recently gave evidence at the Communities and Local Government Committee on 'councillors and the community'. The inquiry focused on whether and how it might be possible to transform the nature and quality of local politics. In a written submission I argued that local councillors need to get better at saying ‘no’ to demands from citizens and trusting that voters will appreciate honesty. But they also need to get better at saying ‘yes’, by finding new ways to share risks and rewards with communities that want to take on more control, assets, services and decisions.
Other key messages were that current models of community leadership often mistakenly assume that community preferences are fixed, which limits the potential for deliberation. Giving local members a bigger role is enhanced by further localisation of decision making, if this is managed in ways which promote inclusion. Central to this is greater transparency in resource allocation criteria to avoid accusations of ‘pork barrel politics’, which damages local politics. One barrier to positive joint action by councillors and the community is where councillors see power as a ‘zero-sum’ rather than a ‘positive-sum’ game. Of course, this is not the fırst time these questions have been asked about roles for local councillors and reconstituting a vibrant local politics. Just before speaking on a panel (with Colin Copus and Michael Thrasher) at the oral evidence sessions, we watched Dame Jane Roberts give evidence. She spoke powerfully about the recommendations of the Councillors (Roberts) Commission from 2007, her main conclusion being that they were still valid, and had not been implemented. She articulated some common themes across about the need to do politics in a fundamentally different way.
As this was my first-time as a select committee witness, the administrators were helpful and gave a full pre-briefing. Despite this, the format of the Select Committee itself illustrated many of the ‘old school’ ways of doing politics that my, and others’, evidence was challenging. Furthermore, the adversarial format of the witness process was very far removed from my vision of deliberative local politics to generate new platforms for mutually agreed community-driven action.
The Committee, chaired by Dr Phyllis Starkey, have not yet published its report (correct at original time of publication, Sep 2011). But given the many attempts to define and create new ‘community leadership’ roles for councillors in the last decade, and the lack of success of the Councillors Commission, it is hard not to be cautious of what the impacts might be when the committee does produce its findings. A new local politics needs those interested in it to lead by example; this was perhaps a missed opportunity.