The problematic relationship between central and local government in England dates back to the nineteenth century – when the 1894 Local Government Act finally established a pattern of elected authorities. The 1894 Act established the concept of elected parish councils in rural areas which has contributed to shaping the basis of local governance today. However, parish councils are no longer centred around the Church but are rather regarded as community councils now. This 1894 Act was followed by the Local Government Act of 1972 which provided for two-tier governance systems. Two-tier systems of local government are generally divided between county councils and district/borough councils in England. Arrangements of the local government in England have been subject to frequent structural and significant reforms. Hazel Blears addresses the long-argued issue of elected representatives being as close as possible to their electorate and the need for responsiveness to local needs in decision/policy making. The need to “shift power, influence and responsibility away from existing centres of power and into the hands of communities and citizens” has been stressed. This argument of central efficiency versus local choice in terms of governance style has been subject to a great deal of criticism over the years.
Importance of local democracy links with proximity to individuals and the concept of decentralisation – an idea that suggests that powers of implementation of policies or decision-making should be exercised at a localised level to encourage involvement of the electorate. Involvement in a two-tier system of governance would provide representatives with a greater level of accountability and legitimacy, which is not possible with the current system due to the existence of such a large divide. “Decentralisation makes government more responsive to local needs,” thus ensuring that the decisions taken are in the best interests of local people. Statistics show that in nine new unitary authorities created in 2009, residents were served by 64 percent fewer councillors than they had been previously, with each councillor representing an average of 4,200 individuals. This lack of proximity and the dramatic reduction in local councillors signifies weaker local leadership and promotes a democratic deficit between citizens and their local representatives. Some scholars suggest that the “people should have the maximum influence over the decisions which shape their lives” because they are considering political agendas. If the people are exercising their democratic right by choosing one political manifesto over others and if further to this, their voices are not being heard then questions can be raised on the democratic legitimacy of the incumbent parties.
The need for devolutionary reform and essential empowerment of citizens was clearly reflected upon the 2006 White Paper, which focused on the return of power to local government and by extension local citizens. The White Paper asserts that the rebalancing of power between the centre, local government and local citizens can only occur if the centre has the courage to ‘let go’. The White Paper proposed to provide “freedom and space for councils to respond with flexibility to local needs and demands.” This indicates that in order to achieve the “hallmark of the modern state”, central government must not only let go but must also be responsive to provide the necessary resources and tools required to meet local needs and demands. Therefore, it could be further argued that although the central government is directly responsible for the inability for local governments to empower the local citizens to “influence decisions and policies that shape their daily lives.” Stanton. Decentralisation and Empowerment.
However, an alternative way to achieve the currently non-existent decentralisation and devolution in England is through volunteerism. Volunteerism fundamentally enables citizens to influence small, but effective, decisions. The political ideology of the Big Society holds impertinent when volunteerism is used to give voice to local citizens. For example, a councillor in Islington stated that involvement in the local committee had helped to build and enhance a local housing estate, “making the whole area a place people prefer to be in.” (Stanton. Decentralisation and Empowerment). The councillor also noted how local citizens’ involvement on the whole was essential in enhancing service provisions to be more smoothly transitioned into society along with becoming more cost-efficient. Hence, involvement in the local community essentially meets both the main purposes of local government: (1) to enable citizens to influence decisions and (2) to deliver services that central government wishes to bring across England such as social services. But while local democracy as such is present amidst some local governments, the lack of local democracy in other local governments is the barrier to them realising their potential to affect change. It could thus be concluded that “people can have the maximum influence… over the decisions… which shape their lives” if the electoral process is made as simplistic as possible.
The 2010 Coalition had a notable impact on devolutionary reform and the ways in which decisions were made in local government on some accounts. In Islington, a councillor stated that the 2010 Coalition resulted in “a little bit more awareness” and that that had the effect of larger contribution to society and local government. However, the councillor soon resorted to scepticism of the two-tier governmental system by saying: “I’m not entirely sure anything the [central] government can do can really change things.” While the Coalition did initially result in more awareness of how contribution to society can affect real change, the councillor’s scepticism of central government is reflective of the disconnected way in which the relationship between central and local government is presented.
The conclusion could be drawn to that while the relationship between local government and local citizens can be improved by increased communication, the same does not necessarily apply to the top two-tiers of the governmental system. Currently, due to the central governments tight grasp on power and the lack of communication, power is unable to be diffused across England and the role of the local government remains in providing citizens with an education in democracy rather than affecting policy change on larger levels. Although citizens are able to influence some decisions by actively volunteering and participating in local matters, the pessimistic view that has been cemented within society since the 19th century that local citizens have limited power in shaping their lives acts as a barrier between true devolution and empowerment.
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