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The Laz Word...from Larry Neild

Decisions, decisions. Left in the hands of just a handful, our columnist laments the collapse of local democracy

Published on October 13th 2008.

The Laz Word...from Larry Neild

DEMOCRACY. People have died, and are still dying, to win the right to have a say in their own destinies.

We used to have democracy in Liverpool, during a time when the councillors we elected as the people's representatives met, at the Town Hall, to make decisions on our behalf. If they took too many unpopular decisions, we had a remedy: we'd chuck them out on election day.

Then there was a bloodless coup and the officers took over. The dawning of the new millennium ushered in a fresh era in which democracy became virtually extinct, not just in Liverpool but in town halls everywhere.In the 21st century version of "democracy", the city is run by a cabinet or executive board, and, once a cabinet member makes a decision, it might as well be set in stone.

Let's look how it used to work when the city was run by the full council and a network of committees and sub-committees. There were 99 councillors, and all but a handful of items had to be put before them for a majority decision. Unless 50 councillors said "Yes", it was the thumbs down.It meant elected citizens could block the closure of a school or an old folks home. The system was decreed slow and cumbersome and needed overhaul.

So you take decision making by 99 councillors, whizz away all that power from them, hand it to a tiny handful of elite councillors who work alongside executive officers. Let that small group take the decisions, and announce it as an improvement in local democracy. Is it me, or has the plot been lost somewhere along the line?

In 1999, Liverpool had nine separate directorates. Then Sir David Henshaw whittled it down to six and now Warren Bradley is bringing it down to four super-departments. Will it mean job losses at the Town Hall? I wonder.On Wednesday (October 15) opposition Labour will make a valiant, but sadly futile bid to save the system of home-helps that many elderly depend upon.

There will be a demonstration outside

the Town Hall, urging passing motorists to offer support by beeping their horns. They might as well whistle.

Liverpool has now been asked by the Government to be one of a handful of local councils to set up a commission to see how local decision making can be improved. I bet they won't ask me to give evidence. I've only observed the goings on at the council for three decades.

Liverpool has the dubious distinction of recording the lowest ever turnout in a council election, when fewer than seven per cent voted, which meant 93 per cent didn't bother. Couldn't be arsed.

One of the lectures I give to university media students is called "Council Reporting, Boring or What?" I start by saying every young journo dreads being dispatched to a council meeting, yet they are an Aladdin's cave, a treasure chest of stories.

The city council, once a dynamic powerhouse of local democracy, is now so toothless it meets just three times a year, OK five if you include two special meetings. Even Lib Dems on the back benches privately moan they are left out of the decision making.

Perhaps my lecture should be re-titled: "Local Rule After The Collapse Of Democracy."

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5 comments so far, continue the conversation, write a comment.

TonyOctober 13th 2008.

As larry says its three times a year plus two special meetings, but a handful of councillors - i think its 12 - can call a special council meeting about anything they like, at any time.

AnonymousOctober 13th 2008.

They only have full council meetings, is it once/twice a year now, since they got dubbed the worst behaved council last year?

CarolynOctober 13th 2008.

That's how many crates of Peroni?

TonyOctober 13th 2008.

Larry does this stuff better than almost anyone else. And it shows he cares.However, all is not lost. Democracy still beats (however intermittently). It only takes the signatures of a handful of councillors (it might be 12) to call a special meeting of the full council to discuss a particular issue - eg, the delay by the Standards Board into Bradley and Storey, the axing of home helps, the performance of the chief executive, the redundacies in the Culture Company, etc etc. So if such a meeting was called and the full council, say, decided by a majority vote that the chief executive had behaved improperly, action would have to be taken. That's just one example.However, Larry also is quite partial about this. Since when have the media (with him excepted) ever attended a full council meeting routinely, even though it makes decisions about 19,500 employees, has a budget of more than a billion pounds and affects the lives of the entire population of the city? Have you ever seen Radio Merseyside there routinely? What about the weekly Liverpool papers?Or CityTalks-but-no-one-listens? Has Confidential ever been to a full council meeting?If not, why not?Discuss.....

Lord CastleOctober 13th 2008.

Of course 12 councillors can call an extraordinary meeting of the council, but they do not have the authority to overturn any decisions, or to make any decisions at all. Their only weapons are embarrassing the administration by giving issues a public airing. The days of journalists covering meetings from start to finish have sadly passed, but during special meetings the opponents are speaking but nobody is listening. They wonder why we, the great citizens of Liverpool, don't turn out in great numbers any more to vote. We are not served by the council, we are governed.

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