For local democracy to flourish our representatives need the power to deliver

Jon Narcross, former Communications Officer

Posted on the 10th March 2022

New ERS research finds over two-thirds of councillors feel they lack the powers to represent the needs of their local community.

Local government is at the front line of our democracy. It’s the closest level of government to our communities and deals with many of the bread-and-butter issues that affect people in their day to day lives in the places where they live.

But for too long our local democracy has suffered at the hands of an over-centralised Westminster system where the ‘centre-knows-best’ mentality has left local democracy to wither – and councillors without the power to represent the needs of their local community.

In a survey of almost 800 local representatives from across England conducted as part of the research for our new report Democracy Made in England, the ERS found growing support for moving the balance of power away from Westminster and to communities across the country.

Exclusive new ERS survey research shows:

  • Over two-thirds (68%) of local representatives feel they do not have sufficient powers to represent the needs of their community
  • 70% called for decisions to be made in partnership between the national and local levels and implemented locally
  • 65% of local representatives think citizens should be more involved in making decisions about their local area

It is clear that, for many who serve their communities at the coalface of local democracy, questions remain unanswered about how relations between the centre and localities can be better structured in favour of local decision making.

With so many local councillors feeling powerless to serve their constituents’ needs, we must find a better balance between those two levels of government that truly serves the interests of communities across England.

One of the basic ways to shift the balance of power between the local and the national is by creating genuinely empowered local government – real devolution that recognises the democratic, as well as economic, benefit of bringing power closer to communities.

Levelling up?

We’ve seen much talk recently of ‘levelling up’ and the need for devolution to English regions and localities. But as it stands England remains one of the most centralised countries in Europe and, unlike in the other nations, the balance of power has never deviated from the British political tradition of centralisation, power-hoarding and Westminster dominance.

Decisions around devolution have always been taken top-down, and there has never been an attempt from the centre at creating empowered alternative centres of power and a healthy democracy at the sub-national level.

The ERS are calling for parties to back new proposals for an overhaul of English local government – with a plan for genuine and democratic devolution underpinned by principles and values that put communities, not Westminster, in the driving seat.

But as well as radically overhauling our approach to devolution, we also need to shift the balance of power between the local and the national, and radically reform democracy in England.

Reform locally and at the centre

We too must tackle the warping effect of First Past the Post on our local elections – an undemocratic anomaly in the 21st century. Proportional representation for local elections, as used in Scotland, would help reinvigorate democracy at the local level, ending the proliferation of one-party states and single-party domination of council chambers, and opening up councils to a diversity of voices.

And those voices must have a place in Westminster too – an elected second chamber that allows for the fair and equal representation of the UK’s nations, regions and localities could play a crucial role in improving the central-local relations.

Something must be done to address the lack of democracy across England. With this call, we are showing not only why but how devolution within England should be comprehensively reformed.

Because only when our local communities and those that serve them have the powers they need can we begin to address England’s democratic deficit.

Read the full report - Democracy Made in England: Where Next for English Local Government

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