We are living through a crisis in local democracy. Turnout has now fallen to a level where the legitimacy of local authorities to govern is in question.
In Cherwell, the percentage turnout in most wards for district council elections varies between the low 30s and the high 20s. County council elections see very similar numbers, as do those for parish councils when they are held at the same time as district council elections, but lower if they are held separately.
The average turnout for a General Election is around 70 per cent and, over the last 100 years, numbers have varied between a low of 57 per cent in 1918 (when the low registration of servicemen returning home after the war was a big factor) and the high of just under 84 per cent in 1950. The Scottish independence referendum saw turnouts approaching 85 per cent and the referendum on EU membership got over 72 per cent.
The question is, why is this crisis affecting local government but not national? Is it because people no longer believe that local government will affect their lives very much?
Vast areas now run by central government (or even the private sector), including the emergency services – police, fire and ambulance – were once owned and managed locally. County councils ran further and higher education in colleges and polytechnics, and most adult education.
Borough councils were largely responsible for electricity generation and much gas production (albeit from coal). In most areas, water was supplied by local authorities or groups of councils banding together to effect economies of scale and logistics and, we should not forget, the building and management of council housing. Social Security used to be provided by local authorities who were responsible for the relief of poverty among children and families, old people and widows.
Few doubt the value of our NHS, but it was the first step in moving control away from local authorities. Over the next few decades, power, water, gas and emergency services were moved to central government, quangos or the private sector.
The power over education and housing was eroded, so that many local authorities no longer hold housing stock and have passed their responsibilities to housing associations and private landlords. Polytechnics are now universities and many schools have become academies and free schools, outside the remit of local authorities.
Even planning has come under sustained assault from central government, as Parliament has legislated ever more prescriptively to limit the discretion of planning committees.
Is it any wonder that fewer people wonder if it is worth voting in local elections? At a time when the issue of devolution is being promoted by local authorities in the North, it’s surely time to look at what decisions are better taken locally and empower councils once more.