Panchayati raj, English style (or not)

posted by Kaihsu Tai on January 23rd, 2007

Recently, I have been reading a bit about India, in particular the panchayati raj envisioned by Mahatma Gandhi. Here in Oxfordshire, we have two tiers of local government: first, a county council; then, a city council surrounded by 4 (rural) district councils, which is a kind of a panchayat. (Note that the district and city councils are independent, not subordinate to the county council.) But as it stands, the political colours in the urban are in stark contrast to that in the rural. For example, none of the city and county councillors elected from the city are Conservatives; almost everywhere else, the Tories prevail. This pattern is replicated in the MPs returned.

For this and more important reasons, the City of Oxford is applying for unitary authority status, extricating itself from the two-tier system. One of the most important reasons is that there would be no more bucks to pass by councillors of a unitary authority: “Highways? That’s the county council’s business!” would not be a valid excuse anymore. The Green Party of England and Wales states in its Manifesto for a Sustainable Society:

PA300 Our preference will be to abolish the County Councils after the transfer of their present functions to District Councils and to confederations of Districts. […]

In Massachusetts, the counties have mostly atrophied. Around San Diego, where I used to live, the county remains, but there is also a confederation of local authorities, of sorts.

(With thanks to two of Oxford’s blogging councillors, Cllr Matthew Sellwood and Cllr Antonia Bance.)

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  1. On January 23, 2007 at 15:55 Adam (Southern California) said:

    I believe in Massachusetts and the rest of New England the township governments perform much of the “default” local government role in areas outside of incorporated cities.

    In California the default local government is the county. Everyone in California is in one county or another, but communities can also incorporate into cities, which can then set their own local laws and gain a considerable amount of local control over land use and such. The cities then, in turn, form associations of governments (such as SANDAG) that govern regional transportation and housing needs. School districts and special districts (like for water, parks, even pest abatement) form yet another level of local government. You’ve always got a county government, and everything else is optional.

    I’ve heard no clamoring for the abolition (or addition of) any layers of local government in California. Essentially the county serves as your default until a community feels like it could do a better job running things locally. Probably the biggest structural issue with local government is that county supervisors are elected by the entire county electorate (five districts per county, except in San Francisco) but have different levels of authority depending on whether you’re in an incorporated city or not. For example, East Los Angeles is an unincorporated community, but all of their local government comes from the County. Their supervisor (Gloria Molina) is elected not just by the people of East L.A. and other unincorporated areas, but also by the residents of many neighborhing incorporated cities like Commerce, Montebello, Bell Gardens, El Monte, etc.

    In the United States, Hawai’i and Alaska both have only a single level of local government. Hawai’i has counties and Alaska has boroughs.

  2. On January 24, 2007 at 05:54 Kaihsu Tai (Oxford, England) said:

    We have similar overlayings here in England. Take Oxford: To start, the schools and social care that are taken care by the Oxfordshire County Council (so far so good). The police service around here is the Thames Valley Police, governed by the Thames Valley Police Authority, covering several counties. The (public!) healthcare is steered by the Thames Valley Strategic Health Authority, followed by a herd of NHS trusts. And then there is the triad of regional organs: the Government Office for the South East, the South East England Development Agency, and the South East England Regional Assembly. Except for the city/district and county councils, hardly anybody knows how to get oneself “appointed” (not elected!) to any of these organs.

    Personally, I think the police and health functions should be merged into the county, to make them more democratically accountable. When the counties are abolished, the regions should take over, as the confederations of local authorities envisioned in the Green manifesto. By then, the regional boundaries will have to be adjusted: Oxfordshire has little in common with Kent beyond that each of them is an hour’s train ride from London. There should be at least three regions in the “little crown” around London, rather than just two (South East England and East Anglia = East of England). But this is already too much detail for you western-Atlantics!

  3. On January 24, 2007 at 10:49 Kaihsu Tai (Oxford, England) said:

    It is nice to be proved right: They have just reorganized the strategic health authorities last year, strictly following the English regional boundaries except that the South East is split into two: “South Central” and “South East Coast”.

  4. On May 9, 2007 at 06:04 Kaihsu Tai (Oxford, England) said:

    I might note that Oxford’s unitary-authority bid has since failed.

  5. On January 16, 2008 at 19:32 Kaihsu Tai said:

    Recently a controversial decision was made to build an incinerator in Oxfordshire, with the decision formally taken by a body called the Oxfordshire Waste Partnership. I wonder what kind of a body this is, and whether it is ultra vires (not to say undemocratic) for the local authorities to delegate their powers thus to this body: Recall the principle delegata potestas non potest delegari.

  6. On January 18, 2008 at 02:57 Kaihsu Tai (Oxford, England) said:

    Ah, the Oxfordshire Partnership is a Local Strategic Partnership.

  7. On March 13, 2008 at 07:39 Kaihsu Tai (Oxford, England) said:

    Last Friday, I went to a meeting of the Oxfordshire Partnership. The leader of the County Council, Keith Mitchell (Conservative), who is the chair of the Partnership, welcomed the first member of the public ever to observe a meeting of the Partnership — yours truly. During the discussion of the sustainable community strategy Oxfordshire 2030, hardly anyone present around the table seemed to have a solution about how to fulfil their new statutory ‘duty to involve’. The Partnership and council members do not know well about the ‘themed’ (e.g. waste) and local strategic (e.g. Vale, Oxford) partnerships. The take-away feeling I got was:

    Where is the politics?

    It is all very well to talk about ‘partnership working’ — but what we really need is participatory democracy and real politics! What happened to political campaigning: canvassing on the doorsteps? What is wrong with debates in the council chambers, that we need to introduce this extra layer of ‘partnerships’?

    If you live in Oxfordshire, contact the Oxfordshire Partnership and go to the next meeting.