Revealed: the cost of one-party councils

Josiah Mortimer, former Head of Communications

Posted on the 2nd October 2015

If you’re reading this, you probably already know that First Past the Post hurts our democracy. But it might be hurting our pockets, too.

Councils dominated by single parties could be wasting as much as £2.6bn a year through a lack of scrutiny of their procurement processes, according to a new report for us released today.

The study – undertaken by Cambridge University academic Mihály Fazekas – is titled The Cost of One-Party Councils and looks at the savings in contracting between councils dominated by a single party (or with a significant number of uncontested seats), and more competitive councils.

It finds that ‘one-party councils’ could be missing out on savings of around £2.6bn when compared to their more competitive counterparts – most likely due to a lack of scrutiny. £2.6bn is a lot of potential extra cash for our struggling authorities.

The report also measures councils’ procurement process against a ‘Corruption Risk Index’ – and finds that one-party councils are around 50% more at risk of corruption than politically competitive councils. The corruption risk of competitive councils compared to those dominated by one party is similar to the difference between the average Swedish municipality and the average Estonian municipality. This doesn’t bode well for democracy or council coffers.

And it’s no small-scale study. It uses ‘big data’ to look at 132,000 public procurement contracts between 2009 and 2013 to identify ‘red flags’ for corruption, such as where only a single bid is submitted or there is a shortened length of time between advertising the bid and the submission deadline.

One-party councils come about because of the distorting effects of First Past the Post in local elections. So today, we’re renewing our call for England and Wales to adopt the Scottish system (the Single Transferable Vote) for electing local councils. In Scotland, it has been shown to completely end the phenomena of one-party councils and uncontested seats – and could result in significant public savings, by increasing levels of scrutiny and lowering councils’ risk of dodgy dealings.

These findings make sense really. When single parties have almost complete control of councils, scrutiny and accountability tend to suffer.

The £2.6bn potential wastage is a damning indictment of an electoral system that gives huge artificial majorities to parties and undermines scrutiny. This kind of waste would be unjustifiable at the best of times. But during a period of austerity it is simply astonishing.

Alarm bells should be ringing in Whitehall today. First Past the Post is clearly unfit for purpose – especially for local government – with parties able to win the vast majority of seats often on a minority of the vote (and on tiny turnouts).

A fairer system, such as the one used in Scotland for local elections, would make ‘one-party states’ a thing of the past. And by letting the sunlight in, a fairer voting system could lead to substantial savings for the taxpayer.

We think it’s time politicians from all parties woke up to the need for a fairer voting system. First Past the Post is hurting our democracy – and now we’ve discovered it’s a financial disaster, too.

Read the full report

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