The Subversion Of Local Democracy

peterborough_town_hallMonday 4th February 2013
Bigger Breakfast Show
BBC Radio Cambridgeshire

[L]OUISE NEIL: A Peterborough councillor is planning to write to the Prime Minister to ask why the city needs 57 councillors. Charlie Swift says the outsourcing of services has left him feeling pointless. Katie Prickett reports:
KATIE PRICKETT: Traditionally local services were provided directly by local councils, but in recent years housing, libraries, care and bin collections have all been outsourced. And more and more schools are becoming independent of local government control. Peterborough City councillor Charlie Swift says it’s left him unable to intervene if somebody has a problem, and feeling as if there’s no place for a councillor. So he’s planning to write to David Cameron to ask why there are so many councillors, and what their role actually is now.

CHARLIE SWIFT: There is no such thing today as local government.
PAUL STAINTON: Ed Murphy is a councillor in Peterborough. What’s the point in you?
ED MURPHY: I think Charlie is making quite a good point. He’s one of the more diligent councillors, and he does get things done, but in proportion to what he could get done, it’s changed dramatically. I’ll give you an example. I represent the Ravensthorpe ward. It’s where I grew up. It’s a place I know really well. Last year the Council made a decision to put solar panels on the Freemans building, which is in Ravensthorpe ward. To this day I’ve not been involved in that decision, nor will they tell me how much it is losing the Council.
PAUL STAINTON: Well that’s interesting. You are a toothless dragon. There’s absolutely no point. Local democracy is dead then, isn’t it?
ED MURPHY: At the moment we have a Cabinet system. We’re spending £808,000 per year on councillors allowances expenses and salaries. It’s far too much for the services that they’re now responsible for. Housing has gone, they’re no longer involved in the police, the Police Authority years ago that councillors were on. And as Charlie said, they used to be involved in public health and health provision. Those things have gone. It’s now been privatised. We don’t have a municipal authority running Peterborough.
PAUL STAINTON: Why should people want to be a councillor then? It seems pointless to me.
ED MURPHY: Councillors like Charlie Swift, and people that have had a lot of experience in campaigning and advocacy for individuals can still get a lot done, and we can do that. And we try and affect the policy. And clearly I ran under a manifesto last year, a Cooperative and Labour manifesto, and will be doing it again, campaigning so the Council does do things like run children’s centres, like influence schools, like build more homes in the city. Our current Council is getting into things it shouldn’t be doing, when it should be doing the basics.
PAUL STAINTON: How do we get power back to councillors? How do we become a local democracy again, anywhere across Cambridgeshire? How do you as a councillor get a bit of representativeness back for your ward?
ED MURPHY: We have different systems now, and it’s about getting in there early, it’s about burrowing away and raising the issues, whether it’s for a motion at the Council or beforehand, through the commissions and through the committees such that we have at the moment. So it’s about going the extra mile and making sure you’re up to speed. But the City Council is being run by the Leader of the Conservative Party and his advisers and Cabinet members, who he pays to back him.
PAUL STAINTON: Too many councillors?
ED MURPHY: Probably at the moment with what services we’re running. There is going to be a review, and maybe the 57 will come down. I’m not sure whether we need three councillors to represent most of the wards in Peterborough.

PAUL STAINTON: What’s the point in councillors who don’t manage anything, who don’t affect any decisions, where decisions are made, particularly in Peterborough, by a ruling Cabinet.
PETER FACEY UNLOCK DEMOCRACY: I don’t want to denigrate councillors, because a lot of them work very hard, In lots of cases, and they will tell you this themselves, but a lot of them do what could be called social work. They are the person who connects an individual citizen with a service.

PAUL STAINTON: What’s the point in councillors? Is there a point to councillors any more? Do they really make a difference? If you’re not in the Cabinet, can you affect anything?
MATTHEW LEE DEPUTY LEADER: Charles Swift is I believe the longest serving councillor in any one ward in the country. I think he sits in the Guinness Book of Records. And of course he remembers the Council as it was, and it continues to change. But just because you outsource a service, doesn’t mean that you spend less time dealing with it. When we moved to put all our cultural and leisure services in Peterborough into the Vivacity, I spend just as much time now dealing with those services, dealing with Vivacity, that I did when I was directly running it from the Town Hall.
PAUL STAINTON: You do. But your average councillor that’s not got any power at all, that in Charlie’s words can’t affect anything any more, he said it’s almost a waste of time being on the Council.
PAUL STAINTON: And it would save some money.
MATTHEW LEE DEPUTY LEADER: It would be a great shame if Charles was to leave the Council. But .. because I think he has a great deal of knowledge and energy to give to Peterborough. I don’t agree with him. We may or may not have a few more or a few less councillors in time, but every councillor plays a very important role in our society and in our Council. We make decisions, and I come back to that point about just having experts running the city. Tell you now that you wouldn’t have a council tax freeze being proposed, next financial year in this city, you’d have a council tax rise, because it would be in those bureaucrats’ interests to keep rising the council tax so they could keep they’re taking as much money out of the city. Local politicians make local decisions, and if you don’t like those decisions that the local politicians make, vote them out and get a new lot in. I’ve always been very proud to represent the area I do, and to make the decisions I do for the whole of Peterborough, and I think whether you outsource or keep the services in-house, that is not an argument around whether you have more or less councillors, it’s about how you manage those services, whether they’re in-house or outsourced out of the Council.