Many good and experienced Councillors were re-elected across the country last week, and all who work with them, or are served by them, have cause to be grateful. Many new Councillors were also elected for the first time, and I’m already optimistic that they will bring fresh energy and ideas to their Councils. Many other Councillors chose to stand down after many years of local service, and I wish them a happy and deserved retirement.
Some Councillors were unceremoniously dumped by the electorate – some because they hadn’t been up to the job, but many more because of the vagaries of national politics. Labour candidates losing because their party in Westminster is profoundly unpopular; Conservative candidates losing because their local MP’s expenses were plastered across the local newspaper on election day, or Liberal Democrat candidates losing because the coincidence of European Elections raised the profile of enough other parties that the traditional “third option” became a third, fourth, or fifth option.
Those Councillors have my sympathy, and if officers in their authorities are anything like me, it is likely many people will miss their advice, wisdom, and support. I’m generally opposed to holding local elections on the same day as national or transnational elections where possible, since it reduces the local element of the campaign – of which there is often precious little enough already! Still, turnover is the way of politics – the passengers change at each station, but the democracy train keeps rolling on.
In happier news, we have a Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government who served for twelve years as an elected Councillor, with a particular interest in the increasingly vital policy area of affordable and decent housing, and who has shown imagination and independent-mindedness in the past. Whatever anyone’s views of the Government or its policies, it is hard to argue that the Department is not getting at least its fair share of the talent. None of which means that they will be able to take the right decisions unless they and the Government more generally are kept informed and under pressure by local councils, individually and collectively.
We also, obviously, have more Conservatives than before actively involved in local government, and assuming the general election goes the way it is widely expected to, that must be promising for ensuring that the Conservatives stick to their promises about devolution, and for establishing another clear channel of communication between local and national policy, which currently often functions more effectively on the officer / civil servant side than it does on the Councillor / MP / Minister side.
I am very much conflicted at the moment about local government’s prospects. I am more optimistic about the chances of getting the national policy right than I have been for some time, but more terrified than ever about the size of the gap between how much money is going to be available (substantially less), and what we are going to be expected to deliver (ever more quality, variety, and volume).