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Sydney Lenssen Buying votes

Local elections mean long hours for municipal engineers, so it is not surprising that this week's sunshine has seen offices emptying as staff recuperate. Candidates canvassing for votes are tough taskmasters. Doorstep complaints about services and potholes are taken into the environment department next morning and no peace is given until each complaint gets a solution, or more likely a reply.

Before the election, the departments prepare briefings. Straight after they go on to new councillor induction meetings, to outline current ambitions, plans and costings. Then each councillor is fed details according to which committees they sit on.

That is local democracy at work, and it seems to me that any extra burden is a small and proper price. The only weakness is that holes need mending all the time, and candidates should be judged on performance over a whole term.

The Neill Committee is looking into a different election issue - the funding of political parties - and the Prime Minister has asked it to report in September. Help at election time was questioned after the Bernie Ecclestone affair and Rupert Murdoch's support for Labour in the Sun.

Public disquiet about possible links between donations and decision making needs to be assuaged. Although Neill's deliberations centre primarily at national level, any recommendations will affect both the local government scene and the burgeoning regional assemblies.

At local level, substantial cash donations from private individuals or companies are rare. But who is to say that gifts in kind to the community - new roundabouts or playing fields which can be required inducements to gain planning permission, are not helpful at election time.

The Neill committee is currently hearing evidence in London, and it will move shortly to Cardiff and Belfast. In February it issued 12,000 copies of a consultation paper and received 'an informed response' from 350 parties. Visits have been made to the US and Canada, Germany and Sweden.

The report is expected to start with a set of principles. The most important will require openness or 'transparency' on who is giving, how much and by what method. Foreign donations are likely to be banned or required to comply with strict conditions.

The next Neill principle is likely to be equality of electoral opportunity. The committee fears the growing possibility of money buying success at elections. But will that apply to the councillor reporting potholes?

The third principle has been called equality of political representation, which means that the elected representative should have due regard for every single constituent's views and aspirations, whether a donor or not. No one should be able to buy influence on political maters.

A fourth principle, not yet agreed by the members of the committee, is that new rules should encourage participation where possible in the political process. A pound raised at a garden party or a union meeting is worthier than a pound from a public company. This might help arrest falling poll figures in local elections.

Neill's big headache will be to convert the principles into suitable rules in a field prone to rule bending. Almost inevitably measures to prevent funding abuse will conflict with important rights to privacy, freedom of association and freedom of expression.

Dennis Reed, director of the Local Government Information Unit, campaigns vigorously on the parlous state of local democracy. He says councillors spend 100 to 137 hours a month on council business. Councillors do not receive full-time salaries plus expenses, as most people believe according to Reed, but puny allowances.

He is on stronger ground when he claims that most new councillors have little influence on policy making, and find it frustrating to attend as voting fodder. One third of new councillors retire after one term and two-thirds disappear after two.

If the Government wants to make a real impact on local elections and keep municipal engineers busy, then authorities need powers over their finance restor- ed to a level which gives them a chance to offer a meaningful 'best value' to their constituents.

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