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The rise and fall of local democracy

 

By Kevin Davis, Managing Partner, Local Government

It was Plato, in his book The Republic, who first talked of “Kyklos”, or the cycle.

Aristotle gave light to the notion that nation states went through a process of development, or Kyklos, as they mature. All Ancient Greek states started as monarchies, became oligarchies and were soon tyrannies before they decided that democracy was the answer.

In 2000 BC, during the time of Homer, nearly all Greek states were monarchies and we all recall with delight the myths of Kings Agamemnon and Theseus. As Monarchs declined they were replaced by Oligarchs – groups of wealthy benefactors whose wealth led them to resent the Kings – who operated soft coups against their monarchical state. 

By 600 BC almost the entirety of Greece was dominated by tyrants, many of whom were, of course, part of the oligarchy that preceded. In 510BC Athens developed the first democracy, although not everyone had the vote. 6,000 was the magic Athenian number because that’s how many people were needed to gather for the Government to be quorate. If there were not 6,000 citizens present at an assembly, then slaves were dispatched to the streets of Athens to swing rope dipped in red paint around their heads. Any citizen who was hit by the red paint would be fined.

But as nations can develop into a democracy, they can assuredly develop out of a democracy. China, Germany, and Argentina are all examples of the reverse of the Kyklos. 

What history rarely reveals is whether the Kyklos ever reverses to the point where a nation ends up returning to a monarchy. Bound by liberal thinking, the movement of democracy back to oligarchy (though some may argue that the European Union, for example, is oligarchical) is difficult enough, but to find a “primus inter pares nemo” is near impossible.

Putting aside whether Boris would ever deploy parking wardens to swarm the streets spraying paint on citizens who dare step out of their homes without permission, this does make you wonder about the direction of our democracy in these times. For those of us with libertarian views about the role of government in our society these could be worrying times. 

Government has taken the power to direct its citizens and to punish them for not following the controls of the Government. How far is this from them controlling the media or enacting laws to take whatever other future powers are deemed necessary for “public health” reasons? All of this done with little Parliamentary scrutiny, giving the state greater and anti-democratic powers. Add to that the sweeping changes that are secretly taking place in town halls and you wonder about the stripping back of power (Kratos) from the people (Demos). 

In my own Borough, democracy has been virtually extinguished (though they would say suspended) on the altar of expediency. All meetings are cancelled, decisions delegated to senior officers who “might” consult members but do not have to. You can see a scenario where elected Councillors are seen as convenient cover for officers taking difficult decisions. 

This does raise questions about the need for so many Councillors during peace times, considering decisions can simply be delegated to the CEO of a council in times of strife. And what is the point of the modern council meeting? If democracy is no longer important at the point of most fear and stress then what is the point of democracy? This leads you to question, “what is democratic accountability” in decision making? or even, “what is democracy”?

What do Councils do now? Of those local decisions the most problematic have to be the regulatory decisions on planning and licencing. The Government has tabled in Parliament that they will allow council decisions to be taken by members who are not in the room. That’s fine for some councils but for those without the equipment or ability this creates major headaches. Some councils are saying all minor planning decisions will be taken by officers but majors will have to wait until better times. In a sense this is a return to when planning committees did not involve themselves in minor neighbour disputes and left that to officers. But what then for the major applications if they have to wait?

Any sensible developer would be putting in applications fast so they can wait twelve weeks and then appeal. But yet again, democracy just dies on the altar of expediency. How will the Government deal with that scenario? If they stop appeals then at the end of this crisis the construction industry will have no pipeline of consents, and likely collapse.

Democracy is important. We have come a long way since 6,000 Athenians had to sit in the same room to make decisions, to now allowing councils to take decisions by video conference. It may seem like a fix at the moment, but once Councils get used to the idea, what happens when normal times return? Will local Government be lobbying for this to continue? 

In my own Council, the only real need for meetings is for planning and licencing – the wind has been taken out of making decisions in meetings by the erosion of the rights of Councillors in favour of “resident participation”. I have been vocal in the need for a recasting of the role of Local Government, it’s funding and its application of democracy. 

Could it be that Covid-19 provides that space to ask where next for democracy after we resume whatever we have left of “normal” at the conclusion of the pandemic? Life will never be the same but I predict local government and dimokratia might be about to change forever.

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