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Making local government work for you

If you’re in the Greater Manchester area this won’t be news to you. The region is to have its own directly elected Mayor with powers over transport, housing, planning and police. The ten Councils that govern Greater Manchester have agreed to this in order that more powers will be devolved to local control. It means more local decision making and less interference from Whitehall

It also means Mancunian voters taking local politics more seriously. In this year’s Wythenshawe Parliamentary by-election only 28% bothered to vote and in local elections most wards fell short of that. Greater devolution means we as voting citizens have to take more responsibility as well as our elected representatives. If it is true that we people have a better understanding of our local needs and circumstances than civil servants in Whitehall, this will only be true if we elect to office those who have the skills and commitment to public service government requires. The idea of American style “metro mayors” was promoted in the 1990’s by Peter Mandelson. The current initiative is the work of the Chancellor George Osborne and has Lord Mandelson’s backing. More significant, it has support from local Labour leaders which is important because the Mayor’s decisions will require the approval of two thirds of the Greater Manchester authorities.  Other cities such as Leeds, Sheffield and Newcastle are expected to press for a similar arrangement.

If you live in Tower Hamlets you should be aware that your Council is in serious trouble. On Tuesday the Communities and Local Government Secretary made an extremely serious statement about allegations of mismanagement of taxpayers’ money in the Borough. An independent inquiry reported evidence of grants given with no transparency or apparent rationale, in most cases against the advice of Council officers. The inquiry found irregular practices in the awarding of contracts. Poplar Town Hall had been sold to a company involving someone who helped the Mayor in his election campaign.

Underlying these failings is an alleged breakdown of democratic scrutiny and accountability. Three key statutory officer posts had not been filled on a permanent basis so that executive power was unchecked and misused.  Public confidence in the Council had been undermined and community cohesion damaged, placing public services in the Borough at risk. The Secretary of State is appointing three Commissioners to oversee specific Council functions and report to him. The Commissioners will recruit to fill the three statutory posts and direct the Council’s grant making.

The Council has 14 days to respond to the inquiry report. Mr Pickles said that local Councils had a good record of transparency and accountability. Local checks and balances are vital in a democracy and there is no place for corruption and cronyism. The Tower Hamlets case was extremely rare. It has challenges of deprivation and diversity but they do not justify what the inquiry had uncovered. Prayer for our local Councillors is an obvious call but so too is prayer for Christian involvement in local government for the good of all the community.

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