Democracy in the East

CONCERN is growing that the East of England will be turned into a near one-party state under Government plans to establish regional boards comprising only of leaders of the county and unitary councils.

Graham Dines

CONCERN is growing that the East of England will be turned into a near one-party state under Government plans to establish regional boards comprising only of leaders of the county and unitary councils.

With the exception of Luton, the council leaders are all Conservative. That won't change in June's elections because the Tories are the dominant force in this region's politics and given the Government's unpopularity, Labour is unlikely to end up controlling any of our major local authorities.

The Liberal Democrats in Suffolk are particularly concerned that alternative views and policies will not be represented on the leaders' board. The party's leader on the county council Kathy Pollard dubs it “undemocratic.”


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It works both ways of course. There are no Tory controlled councils in North East England and thus that area will become a Labour-Liberal Democrat decision making body.

Baroness Andrews , parliamentary under-secretary of state at the department for communities and local government, recognises the political reality in each of England's eight regions but stressed she would not intervene to ensure opposition voices were proportionally represented.

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“It is up to the leaders' boards themselves to settle those problems and to determine their own ways of working. We have certainly not laid down any prescription,” she said in a House of Lords debate on the Local Democracy, Economic Development and Construction Billcurrently going through parliament.

“This is very much a case of trusting the experience of strategy making in the regions that those local authorities have developed over the years. Certainly, the Local Government Association has always emphasised, and rightly so, that local authorities are capable of making decisions and working together. How they create a process to make that regional strategy work will be up to them.

“We expect that local authorities will build up their working practices on their knowledge of what already works. We are all agreed that local authorities in the region are perfectly capable of establishing an effective leaders' board that reflects regional circumstances.”

Lord Hanningfield, the Tory leader of Essex county council and a frontbench spokesman on local government in the Lords, will play a significant role in the new set-up covering Essex, Suffolk, Cambridgeshire, Norfolk and Hertfordshire counties and Thurrock, Southend-on-Sea, Luton, Bedford, Central Bedfordshire, and Peterborough unitaries.

“The leaders' boards are the democratic element of the new regional strategy and they will play a very important role. We still have to consider exactly how they will work,” said Lord Hanningfield in the debate.

A leaders' board is just that - a strategic body comprising only of council leaders. It has the virtue of being a lean, focussed executive not hampered by petty party politics. But is this really democracy in the 21st century.

The answer to Mrs Pollard's concerns is, of course, the introduction of proportional representation in local government elections. That's the only way to sweep away the “winner takes all” system we have now, yet the debate on that has gone strangely quiet.

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