SATURDAY, OCTOBER 21, 2017

COUNCILS UNDER THE SPOTLIGHT NO MORE

 

THE EMPTY TOWN HALL PRESS SEATS.

It is very sad that the Oldham Chronicle has ceased publication after 150 years. It is the latest local paper to fall victim to the surge in on-line advertising and falling readership. For years local newspaper owners have cut the journalists to save costs and then been surprised when the thin content drove away even more readers. Most local papers used to have a correspondent who was an expert on local government and aware of what was going on at the Town Hall. Now they are nearly all gone. The media concentrates excessively on national politicians leaving the leaders, even of some large cities, largely unknown.

The assertion is made that local politics is boring. That is lazy thinking by people who are not prepared to scrutinise the way billions of pounds of our money is spent. It is true that people in one council area don’t really care about what goes on next door but in the great days of local papers, they were the go to places for people to get information on their council alongside coverage of other authorities.

Does this matter? After all a new world has opened on line with a vast range of people offering their opinions about what is going on at national and local level. This blog is one of them. But we will miss the dedicated, independent local government correspondents who exposed scandals like Newcastle’s John Poulson and Westminster’s Dame Shirley Porter. Town Halls still provide many of the services we rely on and are often left to sort out the consequences of ill thought through Whitehall decisions.

But who is keeping an eye on our councillors? Council meetings are rarely reported. The Cabinet system has left most councillors with little to do. The scrutiny they are meant to carry out is a pale shadow of the Westminster Select Committee system it was meant to replicate at a local level.

So, can we rely on central government to do the job? Not really. Eric Pickles, the worst Local Government Secretary in recent history, abolished the Audit Commission. It was responsible for audit and inspection of local government. It reported publicly.

The vast majority of councillors and officers do a great job in difficult circumstances. They are subject to big cuts in their budgets and are dealing first hand with tricky personal services like allocating school places to children and elderly people to a care home.

That said local relationships and big money contracts can lead to corruption. Who’s going to report it consistently and professionally to a wide audience in the future? If the answer is nobody then we should worry.

HAMMOND AND THE NORTHERN POWERHOUSE.

Well at least the, Downtown inspired, crisis conference on the future of the Northern Powerhouse(NP) managed to get the Chancellor to come north this week.

Philip Hammond can be in no doubt at the anger directed towards the Transport Secretary who simultaneously cut back on promises to northern rail while giving the go ahead for Crossrail 2 in London. But it led to no promises while he was here, just a hint that there might be something in the Budget.

Well, Phil the Till, there better be or the NP will be dead in the water.

Follow me @JimHancockUK

 

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During 40 years of broadcasting on the colourful political battlefield that is the North West, I've covered some great stories. From the Militants in Liverpool and Roy Jenkins' bid to become a Warrington MP, to Martin Bell's toppling of Neil Hamilton in Tatton and the election court that expelled Phil Woolas in Oldham.

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