Virtual unreality and the over-centralised state

“Zoom Meeting with Me” by byzantiumbooks is licensed under CC BY 2.0

It is not the worst decision taken by the current administration, but one that neatly encapsulates the insularity and arrogance of our over-centralised government: the powers that enable local authorities to function safely during the pandemic by holding meetings on-line will lapse on 7 May, and will not be renewed. The reason, to be blunt, is that government can’t be bothered.

Responding to requests for an extension submitted last autumn, the Minister  for local government Luke Hall wrote,

“To extend the facility for councils to continue to meet remotely, or in hybrid form, would require primary legislation. There is no option to extend the current regulations under the Coronavirus Act 2020 as section 78 (3) contains the sunset date of 7 May 2021.”  

Despite widespread protests from a range of local organisations, he justified his inclination to take no action by simply stating, “There is considerable pressure on the Government’s legislative programme.” That remains the excuse today.

It is extraordinary. A government can find time to legislate to protect statues, to tackle non-existent threats to free speech in universities, and demand that flags are flown on public buildings, but cannot find time to enable councils to function safely during a pandemic. It shows how hollow are its claims to defend democracy.

The main concern of councillors across the country about this decision relates to safety. The minister claims “The successful rollout of the vaccine and the reduction in cases of Covid-19 should result in a significant reduction in risk for local authority members meeting in person from May 7”. Many would beg to differ. Most council buildings were not designed to allow 2 metre distancing between more than 60 councillors, not to mention officers, the press and members of the public in attendance.

People will not be reassured, either, by the record of this autocratic administration.  At around this time last year, the leader of the House Jacob Rees-Mogg had to be prevented by the Speaker from forcing MPs to return to the overcrowded conditions of the House of Commons, well before the virus was brought under any sort of control. Time after time the government prioritises the symbols of democracy over its substance.

It is not as if recourse to virtual meetings has proved particularly problematic. Indeed  many have found that the ability to host proceedings on-line has increased public participation and raised awareness of local issues. By no means every council chamber is within easy or convenient reach on foot or by car, and many are impossible to get to by public transport. A zoom call enables those interested in specific issues to observe and even participate, without devoting half a day to travel.

While not every meeting ought to be virtual, there are further benefits of operating on-line. There are over 400 county, district and unitary councils in the UK, with some 20,000 elected members. There are almost 12,000 parish, community or village councils in the UK, with almost 100,000 members. The cost of travelling to meetings, both in terms of carbon emissions and cash, is not inconsiderable. Just as many businesses are adapting their organisations to reflect a ‘wired‘ world, so local government should be able to gain the many benefits that new technology can bring.

The fundamental issue, however, is one of principle. Why on earth should it be down to Whitehall to decide whether councillors in Somerset, Sidmouth or the Isles of Scilly meet online, or in person? Why should a minister decide whether residents in rural Mendip pack into a village hall for their annual parish meeting, or participate safely at a distance? These should be matters for local people and informed by local circumstances.

Sadly, this is not an isolated incident. Local government secretary Robert Jenrick has decided that, whatever the people of Somerset think, their county and district councils will be abolished, and replaced by a unitary structure. He alone will decide what kind of unitary council will replace them. Furthermore, he has decided that elections to Somerset County Council are unnecessary this year, just as he has in North Yorkshire and Cumbria.

Imposing a centrally-determined agenda on local authorities is common across all government departments. Perhaps the most egregious example of ministerial overreach was the decision by Gavin Williamson to force Greenwich Council to keep schools open, despite well-founded local concerns about soaring coronavirus rates. It was clearly wrong, yet even now the Department for Education doesn’t feel it has to explain its decision-making. 

What unites these and other examples is an almost colonial mindset in Whitehall, that betrays a contempt for local government and local decision-making. If considered at all, local government is seen at best as an administrative arm of central departments, and at worst a nuisance to be regulated and controlled. True democracy, however, involves a range of institutions accountable in varied ways to the communities they serve, and with a legitimacy of their own. It is far more than the chance to choose a dictator every five years.