Our cities need their local voices
13 September, 2005

Chris Leslie, Director, NLGN
Yorkshire Post

Once upon a time, over a century ago, our great municipal forefathers built the great cities of Leeds, Bradford, Sheffield, Birmingham and elsewhere from a foundation of local government strength, where Mayors and Council Leaders were respected alongside some of the nation’s leading figures. Times have changed, and while there is enormous cynicism about politics and politicians in general, few people would naturally assume that their local councillor is a powerful political figure, and local government in particular has suffered a decline in respect, participation and awareness. This is a great shame, not only because we desperately need to build up the strength of our neighbourhoods and cities to fight for attention from a strong central government, but also because local democracy matters.

If you get frustrated with litter on the streets, with buildings being built in the wrong place, or with young people having nothing to do but loiter on street corners, there is little point in blaming national government – these are local problems which require local solutions. If local democracy is constantly undermined, or disparaged, or ignored, then is it any wonder people are reluctant to vote, or to come forward and stand for election? After 11 years in continuous elected office here in Yorkshire – eight of which were spent representing Shipley in Parliament – I have learned that it is impossible to solve all problems from Westminster or Whitehall.

Yet local councils must have sufficient credibility to reach up to a national level and bang the table effectively. We need Bradford City Council to be strong enough to galvanise investment for city centre regeneration. We need Leeds to speak with authority to the Department for Transport about the rightful transport improvements required as a matter of urgency. We need Sheffield’s leading councillors to gain access to Ministers to change the law on anti-social behaviour. In short, we need a ‘new localism’ that devolves decision-making to the local level were practical, coupled with a prominence and sense of respect for the voice of our towns and cities in Parliament and government.

How are the big decisions affecting this region made? There have been some steps recently to wrestle power away from government departments, and certainly the Regional Development Agency Yorkshire Forward have had some high-profile successes recently. In the ideal world, reforms and budgets should be determined with a stronger local input – with locally elected representatives gaining a more visible role on the national political stage. I believe that there is now a great opportunity to reassert the importance of local governance – not only injecting fresh momentum into the devolution agenda, but going further, increasing the prominence of local democracy at that national level.

Devolution is good, but it should not mean greater distance between the local and the national. That is why I would argue the time has come for local government to step into the fore, shaping policy nationally, as well as delivering it at a neighbourhood level. How best to bring this voice into the heart of decision-making? Quite simply, local government needs a formalised role in our national legislature. We need national policy-making more closely informed by grassroots reality, and we need local authorities more connected into the heart of national policy debate. Bold changes need considering, because a permanent shift of power is needed.

For instance, as a former Minister for Constitutional Affairs, it is clear to me that House of Lords reform is facing its crucial next – and potentially final – stage. Labour’s manifesto signals the need to improve the representative legitimacy of the second chamber, yet without jeopardising the pre-eminence of the House of Commons as the final deciding body. This circle is best squared by ‘indirect election’ – a model adopted in France and Germany and for good reason. The need to enshrine the voice of neighbourhoods, regions and nations in our Parliament is surely accepted by all. Our second chamber needs a dose of diversity – not just gender or ethnic diversity, but ‘national diversity’ as well.

A newly reformed second chamber should, in my view, include a strong quotient of representatives indirectly selected by local councillors – at least a quarter of its total composition. Such a change would narrow the gap between central and local government while simultaneously raising the status and importance of local democracy. It would be a constitutional reform improving Parliament and giving our local representatives a greater voice on the national stage.

As I take on my new role as Director of the New Local Government Network I look forward to my former parliamentary colleagues grasping the opportunity presented by the promise of a free vote on second chamber composition to consider this route seriously. It preserves Commons supremacy while improving parliamentary legitimacy, and enriches our local democracy at the same time. We need a renaissance of local government reflected by the status it holds nationwide, and reforms such as these would be positive steps along that road.