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The challenges facing London

Tara Ram, who is a shadowee on OBV’s Women Councillors project, reports back from a local authority conference in the capital.

I recently attended the London Councils annual summit in Westminster, where they promoted the ‘Be A Councillor’ campaign. This aims to not
only to encourage under-represented people (such as women and ethnic minorities) to stand in next years local elections, but also gives an
opportunity to the public to gain an understanding into the mechanics of how a council works and what councillors do.

Stuart Frazer, of the City of London, said that the biggest challenge was the provision of services with a decrease in budgets alongside restoring public trust and confidence in local politics.

The first of two panel sessions followed titled ‘rebuilding peoples trust in politics and politicians’ chaired by the BBC political correspondent Reeta Chakrabarti.

Transparency and accountability were in short supply according to reporter Andrew Gilligan, saying “in a democracy, we should be able to readily access all relevant documents and information to see what is happening at every stage of this project’. He pointed out that ‘the key to power is control over finances’.

At a session entitled ‘the political context of London in 2010 and beyond’, audience members spoke about their concerns regarding the community
dissatisfaction of stalled investment and planning for housing.

Rising unemployment, disparity between the rich and poor, lack of investment in social and council housing, and increases in violent crime were all raised as central challenges by a panel including Lib Dem MEP Baroness Sarah Ludford, Green Assembly member Darren Johnson, government communities minister Barbara Follett, and Conservative Bob Neil MP.

The debate became heated when an audience member pointed out that the mayor can impose planning in the borough without any consultation.

Baroness Ludford asked Bob Neil directly whether government will return all business rates to local authority. Wearing a sheepish grin he replied, ‘no party will promise you that’ and added ‘one step at a time’.

Given that most people suspect the Tories have a chance at winning next year’s election, it was an unpleasant surprise to sense the level of complacency in his reply and furthermore, the lack of conviction to offer those in dire need a ‘real chance’ at getting on the housing ladder. Let’s hope that this is not a shared mind-set in the Conservative Party.

The audience raised concerns about the fallout in the light of the now notorious expenses scandal to which Barbara Follett MP replied that the distrust between politicians and the people is a growing concern adding that she knew some politicians who were ‘fearful’ of campaigning.

The summit demonstrates that there are many enormous challenges facing London and the nation as a whole but more specifically the sense of imbalance in power it seems remains a central issue especially if the political model of mayors is adopted nationwide.

What measures are in place to determine if this model is suitable or working? What measures are in place to hold the administration to account? The concerns regarding a limited budget in local authority to deliver what some might describe as impossible targets gives the context for the place which we the public have arrived.

In my view, if the distinction between being heard and being listened to is acknowledged and factored in at every stage of the decision making process with consultation, then we may all have a chance, albeit small, at finally redressing such imbalances throughout our political systems and for the future of the body politic.

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