An Opportunity To Renew Our Local Government
National, local and social media platforms are buzzing with news of the arrest of Liverpool’s elected City Mayor.
All and sundry, from the informed and misinformed to the mischievous and malicious are taking the opportunity to furnish us with their views on the personalities involved.
In addition to the well-publicised allegations, social media is awash with rumour, innuendo and petty insult. It’s fair to say that Liverpool’s local politics is not in a good place this weekend.
Of course, stepping back from the hype and hullabaloo, observers of local government will know that Liverpool is not in a unique position, nor have allegations of malpractice been the sole preserve of the Labour Party.
The former Labour leader of Newcastle City Council, T Dan Smith, was infamously imprisoned in 1974 for his part in the notorious “Poulsen Affair”.
In 1996 the former Conservative leader of Westminster City Council, Dame Shirley Porter, was found guilty of gerrymandering through the “Homes for Votes” scandal and, together with her deputy leader, another councillor and three council officials, was ordered to repay the council some £36million.
However, just as Poulsen and Homes for Votes prove that corruption can and does take place in local government, it is also a fact that unfounded allegations and vicious rumours seem to follow local politics around like a bad smell.
There can hardly be anybody in senior office, whether elected member or council officer, who hasn’t been subject to rumours and unfounded allegations of one sort or another. More so in these days of social media.
This is not good for local government, it is not good for the people who depend on local government, and it is not good for those who work within or are elected into local government. Local government needs a new start.
Beacon stands for more local government, we call for “city state” devolution to the Liverpool City Region as a way of bringing more of the power closer to more of the people.
More local government must be underpinned by a mass participatory democracy, where the governance of our city region and its constituent borough councils is an open book.
This reboot of local democracy can be built upon the three pillars of Scrutiny, Accountability and Right of Recall.
How this translates into everyday practice is something that the Beacon political economy team has been tasked with providing answers to.
No matter the form in which local democratic renewal manifests itself, it cannot be that participatory democracy amounts to a check box exercise at four or five year election intervals followed by the winner serving a term of office as Councillor, Mayor or MP with minimal checks and balances left in hands of the wider community.
Furthermore, we cannot continue with the current city council Mayoral system, which unduly centralises power and excludes even most of the elected council members, let alone the people of the city, from effective participation in municipal matters.
Scrutiny in Liverpool can begin in the short term with the city council returning to the Leader and Committee model. Granting speaking rights at all committees to council workers’ trade union representatives would add a further layer of scrutiny through the workers’ voice.
Meetings should be accessible to the public and available to all via live streaming, with all elected members being actively involved in the business of the council.
Accountability can be established with the return of local area community forums, properly constituted as Neighbourhood Committees, before which all elected representatives of the designated neighbourhood, including MPs, are required to appear.
The Right of Recall would involve new legislation, nevertheless the community must have similar rights to recall and remove councillors as those that exist for the recall of MPs.
One positive outcome from the current upheaval ought to be the final nail in the coffin of speculation driven regeneration – a failed model in which local authorities rely on private developers to deliver renewal and regeneration on the basis of an extractive rentier model.
Vast swathes of once publicly owned land and property have been placed in the hands of developers, funded by ever more intricate and unsustainable investment models, in the misplaced belief that their developments will deliver much needed economic stimulus.
Too often the reality is failed development and local suppliers left unpaid.
Even where development is deemed a success, the outcomes are usually leveraged assets that are ultimately in the hands of distant financial institutions that extract wealth from the city for generations.
The passing of civic assets and such potential future wealth from public to private hands will always be followed around by rumours and innuendo.
Even where there is no real hint of malpractice, the other worldly sums involved, coupled with the lack of transparency, ensures that elected members and council staff involved will be subject to suspicion and gossip in the court of public opinion.
This atmosphere of suspicion and mistrust is put into sharp focus by a quick trawl through Freedom of Information requests submitted to Liverpool City Council.
Introduced alongside the aforementioned arrangements for a mass participatory local democracy, a new approach to the use of the city’s assets can put this era of property speculation and constant hints of murky dealings firmly in the past.
Pitched as a step towards a Community Wealth Building model, the Liverpool City Region Metro Mayor’s launch of England’s first Land Commission represents an opportunity to reject the rentier and extractive regeneration models that have taken hold in the past 40 years.
Focusing upon the use of public land to meet the economic, social and environmental needs of the whole community, Community Wealth Building is an opportunity that Liverpool City Council must grab with both hands.
Rather than court private developers and financial institutions, the council must work to build the social, community and co-operative infrastructure that will enable Community Wealth Building to move from academic literature and manifesto musings into the reality of our everyday economic lives in Liverpool.
Mass participatory democracy, with Scrutiny, Accountability and Right of Recall at its core, will provide us with robust local governance.
Relegating speculation-based regeneration to a dismal chapter in the history books, while adopting a people focused Community Wealth Building approach, would remove the developer lobby from its pervasive influence on the local political scene.
This renewal of our local government would both protect the public interest and protect elected members and council employees from the unfounded allegations and malicious rumours that, simultaneously, harm the innocent and provide a smokescreen for the guilty to operate behind.
Regardless of the outcome of the current investigations, the latest crisis to envelope Liverpool’s political scene provides an opportunity to take stock and make changes that can transform our local politics and build a city region economy that can begin to work for us all.
Liverpool City Council – a failure of municipal Labourism As Beacon has previously reported, the latest round of cuts approved by Liverpool’s Labour council brings