Be careful what you wish for!

Roger Putnam (West Cumbria Liberal Democrats) in the Whitehaven News: Thurs 27 Feb 2014

Roger Putnam

Someone once said that democracy is the best of the various unsatisfactory systems of government available. However it is clear that many, in Copeland and across the country, are unhappy with several aspects of our current forms of democracy. Disenchantment with the political process and with many of our elected representatives is as deep as I can ever remember. And this itself poses a substantial threat to democracy. 
Some of this disenchantment has been strongly expressed in the Whitehaven News; there are a number of issues here in our own patch which are currently getting right up the noses of the readers.
The first local issue is the question of whether Whitehaven should have a Town Council, with power to raise limited funds to manage local facilities. This really is a no-brainer! Of course Whitehaven should have a Town Council!  It is clearly unrealistic to expect Copeland Borough Council to take special care of Whitehaven. Indeed, it seems to me that Copeland ignores the needs of the town. Surely Whitehaven would never have ended up without a single public lavatory had there been an effective Town Council charged with looking after the community interest. We now have the shameful situation in which a fine harbour town, aspiring to be a significant tourist destination, is without this most basic facility.
The second issue currently rumbling away is the debate about electing a powerful mayor for Copeland. It is argued that this would be more efficient than the present cumbersome and unpopular Council arrangements. I can only say: ‘be careful what you wish for!’ Elected mayors have been tried in various towns and found wanting. To replace the well-established principles of council authority with an autocratic leader would be a backward step. No one individual should have such power, with little real control from future elected councillors. 
Far better to overcome the existing monopoly of a one-party ruling Cabinet by introducing, as has been done in Scotland, a system of proportional voting. This would help to avoid local one-party dominance, and probably encourage more to put their names forward at election time.
This particular debate is in any case premature, as more radical reform is needed. I am convinced that Cumbria will soon follow the lead of many other authorities by opting for a unitary system of local government. This would replace our present overlapping and inefficient two-tier system of Borough and County councils, preferably with two unitary councils perhaps covering east and west Cumbria. 
This at a stroke removes some 300 District Councillors and 80 County Councillors, and replaces them with fully democratic bodies, each with around 80 elected councillors. Local government by such fairly-elected unitary bodies, working in tandem with town and parish councils, would be simpler, better-delivered, easier to understand and much less costly than our present system.

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