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There is a democratic deficit at local level, Bishop of Durham warns

23 June 2023

Parliamentlive TV

The Bishop of Durham, speaking in the Lords last week

The Bishop of Durham, speaking in the Lords last week

TOO few people understand the importance of local government in addressing the issues that they most care about, the Bishop of Durham, the Rt Revd Paul Butler, has told the House of Lords.

Speaking on Thursday of last week during a debate on “reinvigorating local democracy”, Bishop Butler pointed to a turnout of 35.9 per cent in the 2021 local elections. “We have to question the kind of democracy we live in,” he said. “Is the diverse range of people in our country truly represented when elected officials have been chosen by such a small proportion?

“We have to ask: why do so few people vote in local elections as opposed to General Elections? Bluntly, what I hear is that there is a feeling among the public, regardless of political flavour, that local elections are irrelevant, and that it is not through local government that change can be made.”

Local government was “concerned with the very issues, and provide[s] the very services, that people care most about”, he argued. “From schools and housing to social care and the clearing of bins, local governments deal with the issues that impact the details of our everyday lives.” People needed to feel “that their vote matters”.

The debate was tabled by Lord Shipley, a Liberal Democrat life peer who served as leader of Newcastle City Council between 2006 and 2010. Introducing it, he expressed “serious concerns about the Government’s increasing desire to centralise local service delivery across England out of Whitehall. . . It is as though Whitehall, not in control of the nations, sees its role as increasingly running England out of London as opposed to managing policy development across the United Kingdom.”

The Government had created a “complex patchwork of structures” with “opaque” powers, he suggested. “We must reverse the increasing preference of Ministers and Whitehall for running more and more out of London.” He referred to the example of “all the problems of centralised test and trace” during the pandemic. Other concerns included the need for better auditing of local-government finances, given the “extraordinary debts” accumulated by some councils; “huge cuts” in financial support; and lack of “the essential experience to drive transformative projects of scale”.

He echoed the call for a statutory cross-party commission on the future governance of England, which had been made by the House of Commons Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee, in March.

In his speech, Bishop Butler welcomed the Government’s commitment to devolution as part of its levelling-up agenda. But he argued that it was “being carried out with a top-down approach. England remains one of the most centralised democracies, still being primarily run through UK-wide institutions.”

He also asked the Government how to encourage the greater use of community organising and local citizens’ assemblies. Reinvigorating local democracy meant devolving it not simply to councils but “in a way that becomes collaborative between councils, local businesses, and local voluntary and faith sectors”.

In his response, Lord Evans, a former local councillor for Macclesfield, said that devolution was “at the heart of the Government’s plans for economic growth and to level up the whole country”, and spoke of the £4.8-billion levelling-up fund and £150-million community-ownership fund. He agreed that citizens’ assemblies “certainly have a role to play in communities”.

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