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Artillery Row

The curse of super-councillors

MPs should not be focused on the local at the expense of the national

Is it a bird? Is it a plane? No, it’s super-councillors, the latest awful trend in British public life. 

To the chagrin of right-minded Britons up and down the land, our MPs are increasingly eschewing their national responsibilities in favour of the kind of small-scale work traditionally reserved for local councillors. Last week, outspoken Labour MP Jess Phillips took to Twitter, where she described the kind of work that characterises her time in Parliament — including litter picking, organising job fairs, food bank drives, and playing bridge with elderly constituents. Notably absent were her legislative duties, which I would wager are a shade more significant than waste disposal or card games. 

To be fair, Phillips isn’t the only culprit. Steve Tuckwell, Conservative MP for Boris Johnson’s old seat of Uxbridge & South Ruislip, won national attention earlier this year when he announced his plans to bring a new fish and chip shop to Uxbridge high street. Once again, is this really the sort of work that our MPs should be prioritising? The whole ordeal was only made more absurd by the revelation that Tuckwell himself had blocked an application for a new fish and chip shop in the area when serving as a local councillor. What a load of pollocks. 

For far too many MPs, this sort of prosaic busywork is the bread-and-butter of life as an elected representative. Instead of focusing on issues of national and international importance, most of our MPs spend their time blocking local developments and criticising local councils for changes to the recycling rota. More worryingly, far too many of our legislators are engaged in the kind of amateur social work that Phillips describes, work that they are ill-equipped and ill-trained to do.

To some extent, this is the result of shifting cultural understandings of what an MP ought to be. In too many seats, candidates have succeeded by promoting themselves as a “local champion”, campaigning on a record of delivery which forces their opponents to similarly emphasise their parochial credentials. The result is a localism arms-race, with national issues taking a back-seat to hyperlocal pledges — tree planting takes up more oxygen than tax plans, and immigration is ignored in favour of the local leisure centre.

But it’s also the product of declining local government capacity, and an unclear division of responsibilities. English local government is frightfully complicated — who can blame voters for having no idea how to navigate a system that distributes power between county councils, district councils, parish councils (or, in Wales, community councils), police & crime commissioners, metro mayors, NHS integrated care boards, and regional combined authorities? To describe our contemporary system as “Byzantine” would be a disservice to the patriarchs of centuries gone by, who presided over an empire with a relatively straightforward system of local administration. Contemporary British bureaucracy is, in fact, far worse.

So is it any wonder that voters turn to their MPs, the clearest symbol of governing authority at the local level, when they have an issue with spotlights or potholes? It’s certainly preferable to breaking out the tangled, tortuous organisational chart needed to understand local government in this country.

The ultimate result is MPs who spend less of their time thinking about big national questions, and who therefore don’t develop the administrative skills and experience needed to tackle such issues effectively. On some issues, such as planning, the local link is actively unhelpful, with MPs lobbying to prevent serious reform for fear of losing their seats. For those wondering why the Conservative governments of the past fourteen years never embarked on a serious effort to reform our planning system, look no further than the MPs in leafy parts of southern England who fear being dethroned by NIMBY Liberal Democrats should they dare to threaten the house prices of local residents.

If we want higher quality national legislation, we must develop higher quality national legislators. That means giving MPs the space to breathe, with simplification and proper resourcing of local government — and it also means changing our relationship to the constituency link which tethers MPs to the public. 

Personally, I would start by banning prospective candidates and incumbent MPs from commenting on local planning issues whatsoever, with punitive fines for those who dare pander to the NIMBY mob. Planning questions should be dealt with at two levels — by ministers, who should take a national perspective, and by local councillors, who should be tasked with on-the-ground delivery. MPs, meanwhile, should remain blissfully ignorant of local planning issues, too busy with law-making to bother themselves with such trifling concerns. In the absence of lobbying from “local champions”, ministers would find it easier to undertake serious reform of our broken planning system, safe in the knowledge that their Parliamentary colleagues won’t face electoral backlash. 

If the super-councillor trend continues, there is a good case for severing the constituency link altogether — or at least diluting its importance — the mixed-member proportional system used in New Zealand and Germany seems to strike a defensible balance. First-past-the-post is preferable, but will cease to be so if it continues to promote national inaction for the sake of local gratification. 

So when you go to the ballot box on July 4th, do so with this in mind — the person that you choose won’t actually be responsible for ensuring that your bins are collected on time, or for playing card games with you when you feel lonely. Whatever their leaflets say, they’ll need to have a developed view on financial services regulation, our nuclear deterrent, and our bloated public sector. God help us all.

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