UK democracy was recently rocked to its very foundations by the shock announcement from the Ministry of Local Government (MLG) that local-council meetings must return to in-person meetings after 7 May. This is despite the fact that during lockdown many village halls – often the only place where councils can meet – have been sold, been condemned as unsafe or have collapsed, sometimes under the weight of colonies of bats which have bred unchecked during the pandemic due to the reduction in the use of lighting.
“Ultimately, this is about reputation,” MLG spokesperson Debra Devolvo told Penny Post. “The government reluctantly gave more Covid-control powers to local councils last summer and we’ve been shocked at the results. Councils at all levels proved to be capable, effective and efficient, galvanising local engagement and responding the particular needs of their communities. This is obviously not a situation that we could allow to continue. What we’re doing here is levelling the playing field – levelling it down in this case, reducing the local response performance to what we regard as “the Whitehall norm”.”
A key part of this, she explained, was ensuring that in many cases council meetings couldn’t take place at all. “The combination of the health-and-safety regulations we’ll be insisting on and the fact that many buildings in rural areas are unusable should make this impossible. We’re not actually that interested in rural areas, anyway. Or villages. Or small towns. Hardly anyone lives there and they’re mostly illiterate. They’re nice for weekends, of course, or for somewhere for your grandparents to live but that’s about it.”
The upshot of this will be a drift, which the MLG is encouraging, towards more decisions being taken by senior officers or council leaders without any discussion. “This makes it a lot easier for us to control what goes on,” she explained. “We only have to influence two or three people in any council and we get everything sorted the way we want it.”
Influence? we asked: how would that work? Bribery? Blackmail? Threats of violence? She declined to specify the methods but stressed that “the important thing is that hard-working British families don’t see their money wasted on subsidising thousands of interfering do-gooders, chatterboxes and busybodies who want to ask tiresome questions. Do you remember the Commons during the Brexit debate? What a waste of time. We’re determined to learn from that mistake.”
Ms Devolvo confirmed that the government would also be “packing” every council at every level with a directly appointed nominee from Whitehall who would provide “on-the-spot guidance.” Surely, we asked, they would be deeply unpopular and divisive figures? “I think that “feared” is the reaction we’re aiming for,” she told us.
She added that, with a new law about to pass through parliament insisting that 100 per cent attendance will be necessary for council meetings to be quorate, the appointed member would effectively control whether a meeting could take place at all. “If there’s something on the agenda they don’t like, they simply don’t turn up,” she explained.
It was hoped, she said, that all these new measures would bring an end to “the disastrous experiment of local democracy as we know it” within months.
Finally, we asked, if the intention was to reduce other organisations to a condition of chaos and inertia that made the government look good by comparison, what plan was there for dealing with the NHS, which has recently won so many plaudits as a result of the vaccine programme? “Just you wait and see,” she replied.
The image at the top of the post is of a public meeting organised by Hungerford Town Council in January 2017 to discuss the Salisbury Road planning application.