Andrew Burns: Cost of local democracy price worth paying

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JUST last week, Edinburgh had its second local authority by-election of this council term. The vote took place in the Leith Walk ward, and was triggered by the 
 resignation of
 two sitting councillors. It was actually the first double-vacancy, in a single ward, since the introduction of proportional representation for council elections back in 2007.

And without making any pronouncement on who actually won the two council seats that were vacant, I do believe it’s worth taking time to pause and consider the true value of our local democracy.

Many of our daily experiences have some interface with the council – whether it’s the pavement or road we travel on; the bus we ride on; the school our children attend; the social care services our elderly relatives receive; the sports facilities we visit; the council house we might live in; the parks we spend our leisure time in; the general cleanliness of our streets; the collection of our waste; the monitoring of the restaurants we eat in; the library books we borrow . . . the list goes on and on. And all of these services are, to some extent or another, the responsibility of the local council.

So electing local politicians, who will have ultimate responsibility for these services, is a very important process. And it’s a process that costs money; some £50,000 is required to stage a by-election, but that cost has to be judged against the huge value of the numerous public services listed above.

And just to give some idea of the scale, and logistics, involved in a single ward by-election; here are some facts about that operation: more than 25,000 poll cards have to be printed and sent out by mail; some 4000 postal vote ballots have also to be printed and despatched; around tem polling places (some are schools) have to be hired and fully staffed from 7am right through to 10pm on polling day itself.

After the polls close, the actual counting of the vote has also to be staffed; and then there is the added requirement to ensure smooth logistics (delivering all the ballot boxes from polling places to the count venue) in a timely and secure fashion.

And as many will be aware, during the count process, dozens of political party members (from across the political spectrum) will be carefully scrutinising what goes on – physically looking over the shoulders of the counting staff. It’s a process which does get tense. Yet, in the numerous election counts I’ve attended throughout my 23 years in Edinburgh, I have never once heard a complaint from a member of the counting staff about the detailed scrutiny they come under. Indeed, I’m endlessly amazed at how calm, collected and polite they all remain.

At the end of it all the result has to be agreed with the numerous political parties taking part – last week there were ten separate candidates/parties on the ballot paper; and the whole process has to be seen as fair, thorough and professional . . . and the result thus accepted by all concerned.

So yes, local democracy in the shape of by-elections, does have a very real and tangible cost, and we do need to acknowledge that fact. But it came to us at a far greater cost, one that we should all try to remember as we choose our local representatives.

That opportunity we all have to choose, to select – or not – those who want to stand for public office to represent us, is something that really is impossible to put a value upon.

And whatever our politics, we must never take the importance of that democratic opportunity for granted.

Andrew Burns is leader of Edinburgh City Council