Unpicking our democracy thread by thread: the latest on Somerset’s democratic deficit

Threats to democracy come in many guises.  Sometimes they are dramatic, as set out clearly in Julian Andrews’ recent article in West Country Bylines.  Sometimes they come more quietly but are no less dangerous for being obscure.

A series of articles this year has recorded the systematic sidelining of local democracy in Somerset. In March, Theo Butt-Philip wrote about the cancellation of planned County Council elections by Robert Jenrick thus giving his Conservative colleagues an extended lease of life. In May we wrote about an attempt by the same minister to prevent local people expressing their opinion on what form of unitary authority they would prefer for their county.  In July we reported his decision to ignore the clearly expressed wishes of local people and impose the less popular of the alternatives offered; and we subsequently exposed the methods used to give the impression of respecting the popular will when the opposite was the case.

Worrying as all that is, the eroding of local accountability is set to continue.

Under the present two-tier system Somerset has  269 councillors – 55 at county level and over 200 in the four districts combined  – giving 1,600 voters for every elected representative..  Initial proposals in the ‘One Somerset’ business case talked of reducing this to 100 meaning each county council constituency  would have around 4,300 electors. The latest ‘guidance’ from the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government (MHCLG) however suggests that the total should be even lower,  perhaps as few as 80 which would mean each councillor having to represent 5,377 constituents.

 Furthermore, the whole process is being rushed through. Local organisations have only been given a matter of weeks to influence proposals for the composition of the new authority and new ward boundaries. The haste has given rise to suggestions of possible gerrymandering which, given the track record of the current administration, is only too credible.  

The reduction in the number of elected representatives matters. The size of each constituency is directly related to the workloads of individual councillors, many of whom already find current levels of demand excessive.  Further pressure risks restricting those who can serve their communities in this way to the retired or those of independent means.  To have fewer larger constituencies reduces the prospect of members independent of the three main parties getting elected as the cost of elections increases and, in larger wards, there is less chance that an individual will be known directly to electors.   Having fewer councillors risks reducing the diversity of representation for similar reasons.

Colin Copus, Professor of Government at De Montfort University, argues that, although a reduction in the number of elected representatives has been a consistent theme of central government policy for decades, there is no clear supporting rationale. There is no good evidence that larger authorities or unitary authorities outperform smaller councils and two-tier systems. It does however make life easier for Whitehall officials if they have fewer local authorities to deal with.

 The result, according to Copus, is a serious democratic deficit in England. 

“English local government” he writes “has the largest units of local government, the fewest councillors and the smallest representation of councillors from outside of the main national parties across Europe.” 

 Another source comparing local government across the EU finds there are “118, 209 and 256 people per councillor in France, Austria and Sweden respectively compared to 2,336 and 2,603 people per councillor in Ireland and the UK”.  If Somerset is reduced to 80 representatives the average constituency here would be double the UK figure!

There has been little public reaction to this curtailing of popular representation for a very good reason.  Hardly anyone is aware of what is going on.  When well-informed by an open debate, as there was over the type of unitary authority for Somerset, electors will engage and have clear views.  Whitehall seems to think however that decisions on how many councillors we should have are just a technicality for bureaucrats rather than a serious choice for the people.   

This is how it works in our so-called ‘beacon of democracy’. Since the Secretary of State imposed the unitary solution rejected by a clear majority of Somerset citizens his officials have been carrying out private briefings on what happens next. On 27August officials gave an oral briefing to elected members on the subject and a written summary appeared on the Somerset County Council  website on 7 September.  Local councils have until 17 September to comment on the number of elected representatives who will serve on the new Somerset Council.

In a sentence reeking of condescension, our elected representatives have been told by Sir Humphrey

 “MHCLG [the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government] has provided an opportunity for the five councils to work together to review the business case proposal of 100 Cllrs for the proposed Unitary Council and the submission of an option ideally for a lower council size by 17 September 2021.”

And just in case these country hicks don’t get the message, it adds:

“It should be highlighted that the creation of the proposed Unitary Council and the draft SCO is a matter for the Government to determine”

It’s not a tragedy in itself.  No-one would suggest we should man the barricades to fight over whether Somerset has 80 councillors or 100.  But the decision and the manner of its doing represent a further unpicking of our threadbare democratic institutions and that should concern us all.