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Let’s hear it for our local councils – they must be doing something right

Let’s hear it for our local councils – they must be doing something right

🕔20.Oct 2016

If local government were an Olympic sport, the French would surely call for a drugs test – possibly of the spectators, writes Chris Game. They have 25 times as many elected local politicians, over 80 times as many councils, yet our hardly-local-at-all version of local democracy is nowadays rather more trusted by its citizens.

Last week was Local Democracy Week, as may possibly have come to your attention – or possibly not. It was actually the 19th LDW, having been launched back in 1998 by the Local Government Association (LGA), with some razzmatazz, to address voter apathy and political disengagement.

But its particular focus was young people – to raise their awareness of what their own council and its elected members do, and how they themselves, even the not-yet voters, could still get involved in their community and influence its decisions.

Over 300 councils participated in that first LDW, organising manifold ‘democratic’ activities, and it was rated a considerable success – as it has been generally over the years.

This time, though, judging from personal observation, it seemed the LGA and many councils had themselves caught some of the apathy they were supposed to be dispelling in their young citizens.

Google ‘Local Democracy Week Birmingham’, for example, and you get, on the brand new website, the City Council Newsroom (that’s good), publicising an Erdington Democracy Day event on Saturday October (yes?) 17th, 2009 (Blow! Just missed it).

OK, I’m being unfair. Young people use social media, not council websites, and on Facebook there were “exciting opportunities for Birmingham schools” to meet and shadow the Lord Mayor and other senior councillors, and learn what it’s like to be an elected member, and on Instagram a very politically correct photo of Lord Mayor Carl Rice welcoming some of the chosen ones (main picture). 

You can judge for yourselves how exciting they appear to have found the experience, but my guess is that some of, for instance, Coventry’s LDW offer – including a Virtual Council exercise, a Democracy Day, a BBC-style Question Time, a school debating competition, and the chance actually to BE Lord Mayor for a day – possibly just edged it in the excitement stakes.

This isn’t, though, a Birmingham versus Coventry thing, and anyway I may well be wrong and more councils were organising more democratic happenings than I realised. I do hope so, because, difficult as these austere times are, I could have directed them to some surprisingly upbeat statistics that are surely worth sharing.

In 2007, the European Congress of Local and Regional Authorities were so taken with the UK’s Local Democracy Week that they pinched it – extending it into European LDW, with local authorities from all Council of Europe states doing, well, the kind of things Coventry was doing last week.

This year’s ELDW was an appropriate moment, therefore, to release results from the latest Eurobarometer survey into the trust citizens from 34 European countries say they have in their regional or local authorities.









In the first 2008 survey, a conveniently neat 50% of the total sample said they tended to trust their local authorities. Finns, Danes and Swedes topped the list with over 70%, followed by Austria, Germany, Netherlands, Belgium and France all over 60%.

Croatia and Italy were the laggards, with under 30%, and the UK, with 47% but 48% tending not to trust, posted a net negative in 15th place.

Eight years on, perhaps unsurprisingly given the global financial crisis and its economic and political fallout, local trust overall has fallen, from 50% to 46%, as have most individual countries’ figures.

Finland, Netherlands and Belgium have each dropped seven points or more, Spain is in a vortex of its own, and then there’s France. From its healthy 29% trust balance in 2008, its 62% ‘tend to trusts’ have fallen 11 points, while its 33% ‘tend not to trusts’ are up 9.

That’s an eight-year nosedive of 20% in its own trust balance and a massive 33% change compared to the UK’s, where trust in local government – for reasons that admittedly aren’t immediately obvious – has been increasing to an extent unmatched in any other major EU country.

We’re still, as ever, in a different league from the Scandinavians, but the net positive trust score, even allowing for the smallish national sample sizes, is just that – a real positive, and worth celebrating. Moreover, whatever the rumours, all without stimulants – well, certainly not from central government.

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