2016 has seen a paradigm shift in our political system. The Brexit vote will lead to significant areas of legislative control being returned to the Westminster Parliament; while the proposed boundary changes will see the number of MPs in the Commons reduced by 50, to 600. With these two events in particular in mind, is it time to implement a new democratic deal for the UK, with a further devolution of powers to local governments across Britain and Northern Ireland?
One of the main problems suffered by local politics – and the reason why its elections have consistently low turnout – is that councils are restricted by a lack of control over policy areas which affect their residents. That lack of real, significant influence over a breadth of local policy issues means that voters have a tendency to dismiss the importance of local politics – not without cause, as local government often lacks the capability to deal with their specific issues – and thus engagement with it decreases.
With a plethora of policy areas set to return to Westminster, it is time to have a shake-up of the distribution of power in the UK. Devolution as it exists is patchy and unequal – areas like Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland and a handful of English cities have been granted significant autonomy and legislative control (and accordingly these areas have seen higher engagement and increased turnout) – while other parts of the country have been left behind and continue to have weak local governments without the capacity to really shape their respective regions.
Local authorities and local councillors are best placed to deal with a whole range of local issues, because they generally have an in-depth knowledge of their area and what it requires. Increasing their legislative powers and introducing new areas of control into their remits will enable both effective local government and more effective policy-making across the country. Bringing power down to a more local level will also grant residents real influence over decision-making, as the people with control over policy will be members of the their community, whom they can contact more easily and efficiently.
Effective utilisation of local government legislators will also enable the UK to continue to improve representation, both inside and outside of the Westminster Parliament. If we are to see a commitment to reduce the number of MPs within Westminster, then empowering local councillors could be a good way to ensure continued representation. An ideal democratic model sees powers wielded as close to the people whom are governed by those powers as is humanly possible – with the changing political landscape in the UK at the moment, now could be an ideal time to return the decisions that affect Southampton, for example, to Southampton.
There are certainly reforms that need to be made to local government infrastructure, but the impetus to make those reforms will be driven by the provision of further powers. By taking advantage of the unique opportunity that 2016 provides us, we can create a system of government where local politics matters again. Empowering local politics is about empowering local people, and ensuring that they have a choice about how their area is governed – let’s empower local people, by having the decisions that affect their local area, made in their local area.