Helen Martin: Listen to us or heads will roll

We are very fond of saying we live “in a democracy”. But it’s surprisingly easy to argue that we do nothing of the sort.

By Helen Martin
Monday, 31st October 2011, 12:03 pm

The dictionary definition is “a government in which the people hold the ruling power, either directly or through elected representatives”. And while councillors might think that is exactly what’s going on, I suspect the majority of the electorate would disagree.

In the biggest debacle of all, the trams, we had no say directly and the elected members certainly didn’t “represent” our views. It was the same with the proposal to privatise council services. Decisions were taken by councillors – and I’m sure the last question on their minds was “what do the people want us to do?”

The concept of representation seems to end with their election. Of course, we can’t have a referendum over every issue. But even the principle of being in these Chambers to represent the will of the people appears to be abandoned in favour of personal glory or party loyalty.

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A council such as Edinburgh City has vast responsibilities. It’s actually quite remarkable that it manages to run education, waste disposal, drains, environmental services, social work, roads, lighting, planning etc etc.

And it couldn’t, if it wasn’t for a huge army of officials in the background, because it’s one thing to decide what should happen, and quite another to put a plan into practice.

So, if the people are not “the ruling power” behind our local “democratic” government, we are left with either the elected representatives or the officials holding the reins.

The councillors are the public face of the local authority and would have us believe they are running the show. Officials, in true Yes Minister style, know better. Politicians come and go, occasionally earning grudging respect from their mandarins, or frequently being dismissed as numpties between the officials who are there to guide and advise the elected amateurs.

Obviously, we need the officials (and those in the know say we are lucky to have Sue Bruce in particular, the chief executive who somehow has to keep this vast civic liner afloat with its crew in check, while correcting past bloomers and attending to the needs of the passengers . . . sorry, councillors; a role that falls somewhere between tough task and impossible challenge).

The big question is, to what extent are wide-ranging decisions made by departmental officials rather than councillors, taking us even further from the democratic model?

Some years ago, when I lived in Bruntsfield, I had to call on my local councillor over a difficult property conservation issue. She listened patiently, then said she would go back and ask the officials for their opinion. I pointed out that I already knew what they thought. I wanted her to challenge their opinion on my behalf.

She looked bemused for a moment, said that wasn’t possible but she would be in touch, shook my hand and left.

With hindsight, it now appears every other councillor was doing the same, dismissing the concerns of their electors, failing to examine or challenge the work of the conservation department officials and leading to the murky inquiry now under way into, let’s say, alleged irregularities on a potentially grand scale.

Last week, when Unison was challenging the council over plans to privatise bin collection, its regional organiser, lawyer Peter Hunter, while in discussion with council officials, brought up the lack of public consultation. He said: “Their defence was that the people’s views of privatisation were misguided and out of date.”

Oh really? And council officials think their views should prevail and to hell with democracy?

I’ve no doubt every other council in Scotland is as bad, or as good, as Edinburgh’s. But if we are to claim even a passing acquaintance with democracy, the public view has to be at least respected.

Councillors who disregard any public opinion expressed other than at the ballot box, and officials who dismiss the public en masse as “misguided and out of date” – or in the worst case scenario, who may have been (allegedly) running rings round councillors to create their own little profitable fiefdoms – make a mockery of our claim to be living in a democracy while sneering down our noses at so-called banana republics.

The overriding philosophy seems to be that the people don’t know what they’re talking about and that the public is so stupid it can be ignored with impunity.

In fact, we pay for a council’s ability and expertise – broadly speaking – to deliver what the majority of us want, much as we pay a solicitor, an accountant, or a cleaner.

We can’t always get what we want. But they should always be acting in our best interests and, as much as possible, in accordance with our wishes.

If councillors and officials insist on riding roughshod over our opinions and seizing power, they better make sure they are right. Otherwise, as in the case of the trams, they cannot whine when they face our wrath and calls for heads to roll. It was their mistake, not ours. And they can’t hide behind democracy.