THE local elections have crept up quietly upon us while the political spotlight has been firmly shining on Europe.

But they are important this year more than most in giving a clue about how the parties are faring. Until a month ago I had no idea about the outcome as an inept government faced a lacklustre opposition.

Now it seems Labour are pulling away from the Tories who are being blamed by electors for the mess we are in. It’s a shame that most people vote on national issues in local elections.

For many years about two thirds of registered electors have voted in general elections while only a third come out for local elections. Councils control many vital services some people feel strongly about, ranging from parks to planning. But they often do not vote in local elections until an issue directly hits them.

Much of the money and plenty of control comes from Westminster anyway, Even unprecedented cuts have failed to move most people.

Voting on national issues usually leads to good local councillors being defeated through no fault of their own. It looks as if the Conservatives will be under the most pressure from this kind of voting.

Take my own ward, Wish, on Brighton and Hove City Council. You could not fault the two current Tory councillors for lack of effort. They have been campaigning all over the ward on issues as diverse as beach huts and the future of Hove Lagoon.

Looked at non-politically, Garry Peltzer Dunn and Robert Nemeth deserve to be re-elected. But if people vote on national issues they could be out. It has happened before in Wish ward to an excellent Labour councillor.

Councils have changed a lot over the years. They used to be not all that political with many candidates calling themselves independents. Labour regarded these men and women as closet Tories and soon they were forced to reveal their colours.

Tories were usually business folk wanting to give something back to the community. Labour often fielded working men, proud of their trades unions.

In Hove, which had its own council for many years, sometimes there were no contests in more than half the wards because no one could be bothered to stand against the ruling Conservatives. Some councillors labelled themselves as ratepayers who campaigned for a reduction in charges even after the Tory council had reduced them to virtually nothing.

They tended to win in areas like Hangleton and Wish, now two of the most marginal wards in the city.

Councils run by one party all the time tend to be complacent and in some cases corrupt. But in fiercely contested areas, the danger is that no one party will be in control. In Hastings the council was so split between Liberals, Tories and Labour, that it became a major factor in the resort’s decline.

Local democracy is in a mess. Some councils control all services in their patch such as Brighton and Hove. Others such as neighbouring Telscombe Cliffs have town, district and county councils all running the show. Some authorities operate the traditional committee system which is slow and laborious. It led to the adage that a camel is a horse designed by a committee.

Others have cabinets or elected mayors in charge, a much better system provided the leaders are competent.

There are far too many councillors. They do not have to pass any exams to get elected. They are paid – in Brighton and Hove this costs more than a million pounds a year. Until 1974 they did the job for nothing.

Many authorities have two or three councillors for each ward when one would do the trick. I covered councils for most of my career as a reporter. Many councillors were extremely able and their motives for becoming candidates were surprisingly high. But far too often they wasted time and money on dreary political argument which must have driven the officers mad.

People sometimes say that the politics should be taken out of local government but this would probably be even worse with a load of quirky independents unable to reach decisions about anything. I have been wondering for some time whether councillors are needed at all. Local government would be far more efficient if it was run by officials. Councils used to control many more functions than they do now. In Brighton, water, electricity and gas were at various times operated by the local authority. Local government urgently requires reform to make it more efficient and uniform. No one ever says they wished they had spent more time at council meetings.