That question demands a clear but detailed answer in order to achieve effective and efficient local government: as a Councillor in Devon, England, I’ve been fortunate enough to experience, first-hand, the operations of our local elected representatives for some time. Yet, by exploring the differing makeups of regionalised government in the US and UK, we’re able to assess just how competent these structures are. What damage would be caused – if any at all – by scrapping governance at its most local level, altogether?
The governments of the American states closely parallel that of the federal administration. Each state has a governor, a legislature, and a judiciary. And each state has its own constitution.
But as a European spectator – simply an onlooker with humble knowledge of U.S. politics – I can’t quite grasp the reason why all US sates hold equal influence in Washington. I was very surprised to learn that every state, regardless of its size and population, is able to appoint two US senators. By 2025 the population ratio between California and Wyoming, for instance, will be 70 to 1 – and the number of Senators elected by citizens of the latter state, is identical to those of the former. Doesn’t that seem a little daft?
In fact, we might go further: whilst civil rights and social security are appropriately organised on the national front, schools and hospitals are surely best coordinated at county and city level. This points to the logic of breaking up the biggest states into smaller regions, which in turn would eliminate the overarching flaw of large states; that they are too big to be democratic and too small to be resourceful. Indeed, a citizen in a minor state such as North Dakota, has far more realistic opportunities to influence the state legislature, or to arrange a meeting with the governor, than does a person in Texas or California (who is neither rich nor backed by a lobby group).
This certainly indicates that a revision of state influence is in order; with absolute reference to each state’s geographical area and population makeup – indeed that is the basis on which English constituency boundaries are drawn. So, is the English structure perfect?
Quite the opposite.
Whilst at first glance the UK’s approach to local government appears sensible and coherent – Parish; District; then County Councils (the most powerful local government body behind Members of Parliament): upon closer inspection the bureaucratic documents formed after temporary speed-limit and pot-hole funding decisions seem not to be worth the paper they’re written on.
Since 1894, when Parish and Town Councils were recognised in statute; grass-roots politics has been conducted in cluttered and much-neglected village halls. Throughout that time, such Councils have been ridiculed as a refuge for the peculiar – and those accusations come with some merit: local Councillors seem to become excited with prospects of increased control over parks, ponds and post offices. Wow.
It is becoming more obvious that such localism translates as dangerous amateurism: Councils, therefore, should not be handed any powers that actually influence people’s lives directly. And if their authority is ever further restricted – well, that would render them yet more useless.
Erick Pickles, the UK Communities and Local Government Secretary, ridiculed Councils and their armies of bureaucrats, proposing that authorities should consider sharing top officials, including chief executives, to cut costs. In fact, English government at its most local level couldn’t be more ‘Vicar of Dibley’ esque (for those not familiar with the satirical series, it actively mocks Councils for their mundane and hopeless activity).
We should end with this fitting charade: that Shropshire Council recently cancelled a full-member meeting because the agenda had “nothing useful in it.” So whilst the American structure comes with evident flaws, it certainly has the potential to be democratic, practical and efficient. It is the UK’s localism, however, that allows for the spread of political propaganda and complete non-achievement.
Councillors and diapers need to be changed frequently – for much the same reason.