Cllr Lucy Stephenson is the Leader of Rutland County Council.
May 2023, for Rutland, will be the four yearly performance review, aka the Local Government elections. To some extent, what is happening in Westminster, over which, as a Councillor, you have no meaningful power aside from barracking from the sidelines and forming good lines of communication with your MP, will have a significant impact on the ballot box at a local level. This is embedded by political commentators using Local Government election results as a KPI for Central Government. Irksome in many ways: to know that regardless of what you have achieved or not locally will pale into insignificance compared to what your Party has done or not nationally.
The average turnout for Local Government elections is shockingly low at around the 37 per cent mark, meaning that an average of 63 per cent of any given local population has shown no interest whatsoever. Local Government is the workhorse of any Government of the day. It is the bin collections, the pothole fillers, the Council Tax demanders, the Adult Social Care deliverers, and the child protectors. It manages buses, libraries, housing development, our daily lives in its broad hands. It is the less glamorous magician which turns theory into practice. It is also the barometer of where we have got to as a society. Demand for service far outstrips budget. The result: tighter thresholds for services, universal services trimmed, and persistent increases in Council Tax all against a backdrop of the cost-of-living crisis. 80 per cent of Rutland’s revenue budget comes from Council Tax; the national average 60 per cent. This equates to £331 less central government funding per Rutland household.
I will not explore the amenity disparity resulting from unfair funding between a rural area such as Rutland and that of its urban counterparts – it is an incredibly valid argument, but it is a smokescreen for an uncomfortable truth: Local Government in its entirety is creaking at the seams. Levelling Up is a start to redressing geographical disparity, harnessing local knowledge and understanding to make long-term plans to enable crucial investment in infrastructure that will help local economies flourish for the greater good of the wider community. It resonates with me as a Conservative, but it is a start only. Local Government requires something more fundamental.
Rutland, like every other Council, faces a bleak outlook: a medium-term financial plan that indicates gloomy deficits. Medium term, living within our means feels to be no more than a laudable aspiration – there are no laurels to rest on here, the magic money tree far away despite rigorous and persistent efforts to reconfigure and transform; ‘efficiency’ and ‘effectiveness’ the buzz words of the day. It confirms my assertion that there must be fundamental reform.
This is the backdrop against which we prepare for the May ’23 elections. Rutland has had a politically turbulent time since 2019. We started our new term with a healthy Conservative majority (19 out of 27 Councillors). We have since dropped to six; some have simply resigned prompting by-elections – which has resulted in the rise of the Independents, Lib Dems, Greens and for the first time in many years a Labour Councillor; others have jumped on the Independent bandwagon. I deliberately use a capital ‘I’: it is Political. People should not be hoodwinked into taking a literal meaning of the word ‘independent’ – it speaks to a ‘Politics has no place at a local level’ view. However, if a group of people align, form a group, have a leader and agree voting positions ahead of a meeting then the duck is most certainly quacking! I am new in post, as of May this year, a visible culmination of the aforementioned turbulence. In effect, I have a 10-month mandate to turn things around.
The big personality model for a leader has many things to recommend it; it does, however, carry with it the significant risk of being a single point of failure. It also runs the risk of diluting any Party’s fundamental philosophical approach because the focus becomes personality, not principle. A group that pins its fortunes on any one individual will need to weigh up this risk. A leader that acts with clarity, measure, and vision will help no end, but this does not eliminate the need for a strong team that is united by a commonality of purpose with a drive to deliver for the residents they serve. Decent candidate selection, is therefore crucial.
An effective election campaign necessitates thorough community engagement, not just to identify key support or indeed to get soundbite tag lines across. It is about residents understanding the not terribly sexy topic of Local Government. It is about understanding what is important to people who wish to live their best lives.
With deepened understanding, there is a chance of a bigger election turnout, whilst demonstrating clear principles that shows an honest, solution-focussed, and long term approach with deliverable actions. Democracy is great but it is vulnerable to fickle promises, opinion presented as fact, soundbite temptations that miss the nuance of policy development. Our electorate must be equipped to make informed choices – and that starts with a clear manifesto that people can see will improve their lives if delivered.