On 28th January 2016 the House of Lords debated a motion from Lord Shipley “that this House takes note of local democracy in the United Kingdom.” The Bishop of Derby, Rt Revd Alastair Redfern, spoke in the debate.
Lord Bishop of Derby: My Lords, it is a great privilege on behalf of the House to welcome the noble Baroness, Lady Scott, and to thank her for an expert and excellent speech—a great harbinger of what she will bring to the House.
I feel connected with all the maiden speeches today. I was once Bishop of Spalding and worked with great joy in the area of South Holland, where the noble Lord, Lord Porter, was leader of the district council, and I had the privilege of serving with the noble Lord, Lord Stunell, on a Select Committee, so it is good to welcome both of them too.
Besides being the leader of a unitary authority, the noble Baroness, Lady Scott, is of course experienced as the chair of an education committee, as the member of a learning and skills council in Wiltshire and Swindon, and as a member of the Court of the University of Bath. She also sits on the Local Government Association’s Children and Young People Board. She brings enormous wisdom to this area but I want her to hang on to the milking of cows. Her farming background gives her an earthiness that will be very valuable in earthing us with that kind of wisdom, and I welcome her to the House.
I want to make it clear that I believe passionately in local democracy. Before the last election I published a small book called The Word on the Street, which tried to see how the English parish might provide a space for what the noble Lord, Lord True, called “trust”, to be developed through the small platoons that the noble Lord, Lord Shipley, talked about at a very basic level, rekindling interest in local issues and local politics.
However, today I want to challenge us to think about the problems and complexities of local democracy, especially in a digital age. One issue is that of scale. Noble Lords will know that Thomas Hobbes traces the history of politics from tribes, to towns, to states. Now, it is global. Given the communications world we live in, it is very hard to reverse that trajectory, so even if you live in a small place, your mind is full of things from all over the world and all the big issues.
I am privileged to sit with the noble Lord, Lord Kerslake, on the group looking at models of devolution. I am very converted to the importance of cities and mayors. I went to a conference in Rome with 133 mayors from all over the world. It was very powerful to see how cities provide a place where, in the 21st century, power and participation can work together. The mayor can be a figure to appeal to people, to get investment, to talk about the value of contributing to social welfare and taxation, and to achieve great things. It was a very impressive conference. The Mayor of Stockholm said, “The world is knocking on cities’ doors. They are crossroads for faiths and cultures”. A mayor from Sicily said, “The city is the laboratory of the human journey”. They are the spaces in the 21st century—not nations, or further down the chain—for power and participation to mix creatively.
One of our problems is that although the city can bring together complexity, size and identity, as we have seen in our debates about cities and local government legislation, most of our country does not fit into that pattern of being in a city in that sense. As the noble Lord, Lord Greaves, said about geography, there are serious issues about rural areas and other kinds of regions that do not have that easy, significant sense of solidarity that a city can provide for its citizens.
Turning to another important area, as we know in the church, and as is true here in Parliament, people do not want to be represented; they simply want a framework within which they can complain. There is a terrible negativity about the practice of politics. That is enhanced and amplified by the world wide web. People want, to use the jargon, resonance and not substance. But local resonance is a very pathetic little sound that is not a good ingredient of a healthy politics. Keane might talk about monitoring democracy and the moments of oversight, but in a complex world where the scale is large, there is a serious issue about where spaces exist for reflection and light and not just sounding off in small corners in a negative way.
I end with three brief questions for the Minister. First, how can the Government encourage local democracy not just to be a site for negativity and complaint, but to bring people positively into the bigger picture? How can subsidiarity go back up the chain? The Government have a role there through the signals they give and the way they handle democracy at the top level. Secondly, how can we develop regions for political coherence and identity that are of substance and not just resonance? Lastly, how can we develop not just cities but rural areas too?
Viscount Younger of Leckie (Con): [extract]… That leads nicely to the interesting comments made by the right reverend Prelates. I will pick up what the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Durham said in his gentle trot—if I may put it that way—around the country. He has clearly had much experience of working with local authorities. He pointed out the importance of local democracy, in particular focusing on the value of parish councils. I was particularly struck by his focus on community action partnerships and how it is important that there did not necessarily need to be a clear leader: they all worked symbiotically together, supported by the local authority. I was struck by the 3,200 projects that he mentioned. His comments were supported by the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Derby, who also believed passionately in local democracy and supported the concept of local mayors. I picked up his point that there can be too much negativity at times.