12 November 2009

Who runs your council?

John O’Farrell’s 1998 book Things Can Only Get Better describes local government as “Not exactly what the marketing boys call 'sexy'”. He has a point. The labyrinthine world of bureaucracy, committees and local politics doesn’t always make your local authority the most appealing subject for reflection and debate. In fairness to John O’Farrell, he does go on to write about the reasons why council services are so important, and why we should care about who is in charge of them. Nevertheless, the point remains, local government can be impenetrable to the people who pay for and rely on its services.

An unfortunate side-effect of this is that when issues of importance are debated locally (such as the hole in the housing repairs budget or the council’s poor handling of primary school admissions this year) the facts of the matter are sometimes lost. In particular, those in positions of political responsibility often attempt to hide behind the structure of local government to avoid being held to account.

In our ward for example, candidates from certain political parties often claim to be “campaigning locally” against the council policies, when in fact, they are already running the council and have been for the last 7 ½ years. By the same token, they will issue statements claiming personal credit for developments which have nothing to do with the council which they suddenly admit to being in charge of(such as Government or TfL programmes).

Granted, councils don’t operate in a vacuum. Government’s do allocate a large proportion of their funding, and decide on their responsibilities. However, some manage to make a success of their services and others do not. So local control does matter, and it is important to understand who is responsible for what.

In an attempt to de-mystify local political structures a little, I thought I would list some very straight-forward facts about Peckham Rye and Southwark council.

1. Southwark Council has been run by a coalition of Liberal Democrat and Conservative Councillors since 2002. Almost all decisions on council policy over the last 7 ½ years are the responsibility of the Lib Dems and Conservatives.

2. The Liberal Democrats are the dominant administration group. They have 27 councillors to the Conservative’s 6.

3. Southwark is divided into 21 wards and each ward has three councillors.

4. Peckham Rye’s three councillors are currently Labour (Aubyn Graham, Robert Smeath and Evrim Laws). The three of us are hoping to succeed them as Labour councillors in the 2010 elections. Obviously we face a tough fight against Conservative, Lib Dem and other party candidates in that election.

5. Peckham Rye ward is in the south east of Southwark on the border with the borough of Lewisham. If you’re unsure of which ward you live in, check here)

So that is how it stands. In your area, your local Labour councillors have done a great job of representing local people on the council, but ultimately, that council is run by the Lib Dems and Tories.

So next time you hear a candidate complaining about council policy or services in this area, ask them which party they represent? It might just be they're already running the council.

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