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Speech to the Association of County Councils Conference, Eastbourne 1996

Paddy Ashdown (Liberal Democrat)

Location: Eastbourne

Ladies and gentlemen, it is a great pleasure to be with you again - especially in this, the year of your final Conference.

It is now 106 years since your county councils took on their modern role through the Local Government Act of 1888.

For over a century, with just one change of name in 1974, this organisation has brought county councillors together and fought for your common interests - a powerful voice and important forum.

So this final Conference is an historic occasion - but I hope it will be a happy swansong - for two reasons.

The first reason is that, while your organisation may be disappearing, our counties are not. After a thousand years of history, getting rid of our counties themselves will take more than a merger of local government organisations!

And the second reason is that, in my view, the new Local Government Association will be an even more important forum and even more powerful voice than this one.

You are not disappearing - you are being genetically engineered into a new, cross-bred super-beast!

Your coming together with the AMA and ADC is, I believe, a very good thing.

The Local Government Association will provide a stronger platform from which to argue the local government case, and fight for stronger local democracy after years of centralisation.

With local councils being asked to do more and more with less and less; with power still being centralised, and handed over to appointees on unelected quangos; a powerful voice for local democracy is needed now more than ever.

Now and then, like a mirage in the desert, the prospect of a new dawn for local government appears before our eyes - and then disappears again.

Last week, one of the newspapers heralded the Government’s White Paper on local government with the headline: “Change of tack over town halls”.

I’ll believe it when I see it!

But there are some good things in the Government’s new white paper.

It accepted that there had been a breakdown of trust between central and local government in the 80s, and vowed to rebuild it.

That recognition is, of late, welcome.

But then I read on about what the White Paper had to say about capping, local control of business rates, tendering and countless other things, and it didn’t suggest much evidence of any new approach springing out of that new realisation.

And the positive proclamation for a new “spirit of partnership and collaboration” was rather ruined by the Conservative Central Office press release which said: “For too long, the reputation of local government has been tarnished by the bad practices of Labour and Liberal Democrat councils”.

Now, I am not trying to make a purely party political point here.

We all fight hard at election times, and we all have our party arguments. And that is the way it should be. No-one wants local Government to become the kind of anaemic, bloodless affair we see in some countries. Its not the level of debate within local Government which worry’s me. Its the level of debate between local Government and Westminster and Whitehall.

All across the country, people of all political persuasions work very hard, and give their time free, to serve their local communities - motivated in nearly every case by a desire to make things better, so that we can all live in decent communities with decent services.

And I just think it is about time that, rather than treating local councillors as a bunch of hopeless half-wits, politicians at Westminster, of all parties, started to value the contribution, and recognise the achievements, of politicians of all parties in our town halls.

That, for me, would be a good starting-point for rebuilding trust.

And the next thing to do would be to recognise the importance of strong local government and democracy in the world in which we now live.

You see, two great changes have transformed our world over the last fifty years.

First, the growth of individual freedom and choice.

And second, the globalisation of power.

The one victim of both changes has been national governments.

Individuals as citizens and consumers are less deferential and more demanding, less willing to accept “things as they are”, more inclined to criticise how things are done by “the Establishment”.

And in a world of global finance, multinational corporations and multi-media tycoons, international information systems like the Internet, and international threats to our security like environmental degradation, terrorism, the drug culture, national governments have less power, and are less able to do things that they once could.

The interesting thing is how this affects individuals.

They enjoy their personal freedoms, and want more individual choice. But many also feel their lives powerfully affected by forces beyond their control - and want more security, more of a say, more control.

And the reality is that local government - rooted in local communities, in touch with people, more easy to influence - is often and in many areas far better able to meet these needs than national government.

We shouldn’t be taking power away from local communities. We should be giving people more power to do things for themselves.

We shouldn’t be handing power to remote, unaccountable organisations, impossible for people to influence. We should be making decision-makers more accountable, making decisions easier for people to influence.

We shouldn’t be closing off government. We should be opening it up - involving people, so that they gain more control over their lives.

We have four years till the Millennium. We are promised a giant dome in Greenwich, and a huge Ferris wheel on London’s South Bank. Well, I want there to be other, more permanent, monuments to Britain’s Millennium vision.

The renewal of our democratic institutions and our democratic spirit. A new Renaissance of British education. A national, high-tech information network. An Environmental Charter to guide us through the twenty-first century.

And I want there to be a revival of local democracy - a transformation of British government, turning the system on its head, putting power and independence back into our local communities, to innovate and experiment.

In just five short years, we will be into the next century. I propose today, five clear aims to revive local government for that century.

First, New Freedom. Second, Fair Representation. Third, Financial Independence. Fourth, More People Power. And fifth, Better Services.

Let me take each one of them in turn.

First, if we want local councils to become more than units of central government administration, they must have new freedom to act and innovate.

The key here is the power to act without specific legislative authority, in order to develop local projects or meet specific local needs.

It is a sign of how far wrong we have gone that the European Union has a power of near general competence, but local councils do not. This is the world turned upside-down.

In my view, we should remove the EU’s power of near general competence, to stop creeping EU legislation and define the EU’s core activities. And I say that as a committed and enthusiastic European because Europe will only work if it works from the bottom, not the top.

Here in Britain we should decentralise power from Westminster and Whitehall and give local councils a power of general competence, so that communities can shape their own future through decision-making that is as local as possible.

This is not exactly revolutionary. The principle of local self-government is enshrined in most national Constitutions in the EU - Britain, of course, doesn’t have a written Constitution.

The power of general competence is the norm on the continent, and the principle is enshrined in the European Charter of Local Self-Government, signed and ratified by most other EU states. Britain should do the same - as the first step to Twenty-First Century Local Government.

The second step must be fair representation.

The case was made with simple clarity by the independent Commission for Local Democracy, in their report last year. They concluded:

“We are persuaded that, irrespective of the case for proportional representation in national elections, the case for it at the local level is overwhelming”.

The present system, they argued, tends to exaggerate partisan conflict at the expense of community leadership, consensus and participation - and I’m sure most of you would probably agree with that.

They continue:

“Local government in the twenty-first century will be concerned with coalitions of interest in an increasingly plural society.

“The skills of politicians will be directed to securing the support of disparate interests in the community.

“If local government is to be vigorous, independent and potent, the system must be one that recognises and encourages this requirement.

“The election of representatives must reflect the widest range of local opinion.

“Voters should have as far as possible equal value, and the resulting choice of representatives should be as nearly proportional to the votes cast as can be achieved.

“We believe therefore that elections to local authorities in future should be conducted on a system of proportional representation”.

I would not disagree with a word of that - I think it is an absolute disgrace that my party should enjoy 92% of the seats on only 46% of the vote. I refer, of course to the scandalously unacceptable and democratically intolerable domination of Liberal Democrat representation on Richmond Borough Council - and nowadays many other councils, too.

But despite the fact that my party is now actually benefiting from the first-past-the-post system in local government elections, we are still determined to reform the system from which we so scandalously benefit.

And I would agree, too, with the local Government Commission’s proposed system - the Single Transferable Vote - which makes abundant sense for elections already usually based on multi-member wards.

Everyone who believes in local democracy has to accept the fact that waste, misrule and bad management in left-wing administrations in the 1980s provided the rod which central Government ministers used to beat local government with.

Those administrations were minorities, which did not command majority support in their communities. Not a single one of those left wing authorities which did such damage to local Government from Lambeth through to Liverpool would have obtained power under a fair voting system!

If local government wants more power and independence, it has to prove that that kind of thing is firmly in the past. A fair voting system is the guarantee of that.

I hope that, whatever our different parties think about fair votes for national elections, we can agree that a twenty-first century revival of local democracy cannot succeed unless it is rooted on fair representation - and that we can work together to meet that second commitment.

The third aim must be financial independence - so that local councils can invest in locally-determined priorities.

Financial independence is also the way to re-establish accountability between local electors and politicians for their financial performance.

That link has all but broken down with strict spending controls, capping limits, and a shrinking proportion of local taxation raised locally - This is, without question one of the reasons for the declining interest of local electors in local elections.

Again, the Commission for Local Democracy is instructive.

They argue that: “The capping of budgets, revenue and expenditure is wholly incompatible with democratic accountability ... Democratically robust local authorities need a source of independent finance ... Local authorities must be able to resource their policies independently, accountable to local not national electorates”.

Again, I agree. It is as essential as general competence and fair representation. All three changes must be made in the next Parliament, in time for the next century - and my Party is determined to see that happen.

If these three aims represent the foundation stones on which to build a new local government role - my fourth and fifth aims are geared to transforming the way government works and to changing the culture.

What we need to pioneer - all of us - is a new kind of government for the twenty-first century. It is not a question of big or small government, but a different type of government - direct government. Better government, open government. Services easy to access. Decisions easy to influence.

So my fourth aim is more people power - ways of giving local people a more direct say in decision-making.

Local councils have taken great strides in becoming more people-orientated over the last ten years - More and more councils are now treating their citizens from the moment they enter the Council building the same way as a modern estate agents or solicitors would. And that is right -for politics, too, in a service industry.

It gives me great pleasure to go round the country and see what my own Party’s councillors have done in this regard - opening up meetings, decentralising power, and developing imaginative ways of consulting people.

But there is lots more to be done - a whole range of ideas to explore and experiment with - from citizen’s initiatives, to local referendums, to citizens’ juries.

And alongside this kind of direct democracy in decision-making, I believe government - local and national - should be providing much more “direct service”.

Let me give you an example of what I mean.

This morning, I opened a new one-stop “Help Point” at Burgess Hill, right on the border of East Sussex., four miles away from the District offices in Haywards Heath; forty miles away from the County offices in Chichester.

The idea came from the Town Council, which set it up in partnership with Mid-Sussex District Council and West Sussex County Council. The local Housing Association, Health Authority, Tourist Board and enterprise organisations are all involved as well.

This new point has made it possible for residents and businesses of Burgess Hill to get access to services from all levels of local government at one stop in their High Street.

The response from local people has been very positive. After all, most people know little, and care less, about which services are provided by which level of government - all they want is good service and easy access to government information and services, whatever level of government they come from.

I would like to see this idea developed across Britain.

I want to see a national network of one-stop shops for government services, developed across Britain - harnessing new technology, and used as a one-stop point of access for central government services, as well.

A new kind of direct service, developed in partnership between all levels of government.

Such a network of new direct service from government would, I believe, be the best possible sign that we enter the twenty-first century with a clear mission to give people a better deal from government.

Local government has a crucial role to play in this - not just in showing central government what can be done, but in reviving local government itself.

There are still some dusty, cobwebbed corners of local government, where people are content to carry on doing things because that’s the way they have always been done. Well that’s simply not good enough.

We should be as determined to blow away the dust and cobwebs of outdated practice in local government as I am to clean up politics at Westminster and Whitehall.

This is not just a question of what local politicians do. It also concerns council officers and employees.

I look at some of the people working on my local district council, and they really are impressive. Bright, imaginative and innovative young people - attracted to the job because it is interesting, working well with councillors who are keen to try out new ideas, and relishing the culture of experimentation that is flourishing in the council.

But there are still far too many in local Government who take up a career the town hall because its safe, secure and unchallenging and unrewarding. We must change.

Local government for officers and councillors alike should be a seed-bed of innovation, new ideas and new practices - and it should be fun.

It should be the most challenging area of our democracy and Government practice. It should be the well-spring of new thinking and new ways of doing things. It should be prepared to take risks. We are far too risk averse in our politics in Britain and local Government is the place to break that.

There is no reason why enterprise and entrepreneurs should be confined to business. We should have the same qualities in government, too - and, in line with everything else I have said, the place where this should be most vibrant is in local government.

Ladies and gentlemen, I have tried to outline five key aims which I believe amount to a programme for a Millennium Revival of Local Democracy in Britain.

To recap. New Freedom. Fair Representation. Financial Independence. People Power. Better Services.

Nothing on that agenda is impossible to achieve. It is all possible within the lifetime of a Parliament - and I regard this agenda as a core objective of the next Parliament.

To revitalise local democracy.

To secure a real role for local government into the next century.

To begin to reconnect government with people in this country.

I hope you share these objectives - and I hope that you will work to achieve them through the new Local Government Association.

Be in no doubt that Liberal Democrats will be watchdogs for local democracy in Parliament. We will fight any centralising tendencies in the next Government tooth and nail.

This is your last ever Conference as an organisation.

As county councillors, you represent one of the oldest units of government anywhere in the world.

Your shires have existed for a thousand years.

Britain is about to begin another thousand years.

I hope - I urge you to take that proud history into your new Association, and with your new colleagues, make sure that Britain begins the new Millennium with local government proud, local democracy revitalised, and local people served with the best this country has to offer.

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