local government

New research: one-party councils could be wasting £2.6bn a year

4th October 2015
4 Oct 2015
local democracy
local government


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07979 696 265

Councils dominated by single parties could be wasting as much as £2.6bn a year through their procurement processes, according to a new report for the Electoral Reform Society.

The study, titled ‘The Cost of One-Party Councils’, measures the price savings achieved by English councils with ‘weak electoral accountability’ - i.e. those councils dominated by a single party or with a significant number of uncontested seats - and compares these with competitive councils. It finds that ‘one-party councils’ [1] could be missing out on savings of around £2.6bn when compared to their more competitive counterparts [2].

The report also measures councils’ procurement process against a ‘Corruption Risk Index’ [3], and finds that one-party councils are around 50% more at risk of corruption than politically competitive councils.

One-party councils come about because of the distorting effects of First Past the Post in local elections. Responding to the new findings, the Electoral Reform Society is renewing its call for England and Wales to adopt the Scottish system (the Single Transferable Vote) for electing local councils. This system has been shown to end the phenomena of one-party councils and uncontested seats [4], and could therefore result in significant public savings by increasing levels of scrutiny and lowering councils’ risk of corruption.

Key findings:

  • One-party councils could be wasting up to £2.6bn a year through procurement compared to their more politically competitive counterparts – amounting to 5.9% of their £45bn annual spend
  • One-party councils typically achieve lower price savings [5] in procurement – 2.2% compared to 6.2% achieved by competitive councils
  • One-party councils have on average 50% higher ‘risk of corruption’ compared to competitive councils
  • The corruption risk of competitive councils compared to those dominated by one party is similar to the average Swedish municipality compared to the average Estonian municipality

The research, by University of Cambridge academic Mihály Fazekas for the ERS, examines over 132,000 public procurement contracts between 2009 and 2013 to identify ‘red flags’ for corruption, such as where only a single bid is submitted or there is a shortened length of time between advertising the bid and the submission deadline. These are brought together in a Corruption Risk Index to give a measure of councils’ risk of corruption in public procurement. Further evidence of the link between weak electoral accountability and higher corruption risk is supplied by a comparison of average price savings in procurement.

The study is the first to use ‘big data’ to analyse the potential for local councils to waste money in procurement owing to a lack of scrutiny or accountability (see Notes for further detail on methodology).

Katie Ghose, Chief Executive of the Electoral Reform Society, said:

“When single parties have almost complete control of councils, scrutiny and accountability tend to suffer. It’s not true of all one-party councils, but it’s bound to be true of some – and this new research suggests that lack of scrutiny could be costing us dear.

“The fact that tax-payers in England could be losing out on £2.6bn a year in potential savings is a damning indictment of an electoral system that gives huge artificial majorities to parties and undermines scrutiny. This kind of waste would be unjustifiable at the best of times, let alone during a period of austerity.

“The risk of corruption at the local level should set off alarm bells in Whitehall. The public are getting a poor deal through our voting system. For many millions of people, their vote effectively doesn’t count – and now we are seeing the potential financial cost of that, as well as the democratic cost.

“First Past the Post is clearly unfit for purpose, with parties able to win the vast majority of seats often on a minority of the vote. A fairer system, such as the one used in Scotland for local elections, would make ‘one-party states’ a thing of the past. And by letting the sunlight in, a fairer voting system could lead to substantial savings for the taxpayer.

“It’s time politicians from all parties woke up to the need for a fairer voting system. First Past the Post is hurting our democracy, and now it looks like it’s hurting us in the pocket too.”


The report is being launched at Conservative Party conference (Exchange 10, Manchester Central) at 12:45pm on Sunday 4th October.

Speakers at the launch event include Jonathan Isaby (Chief Executive, Taxpayers’ Alliance), Jacqui McKinlay (Executive Director, Centre for Public Scrutiny) and Sean Ansstee (Conservative Councillor and Leader of Trafford Borough Council.

For more information, quotes or to arrange interviews, contact Will Brett (will.brett@electoral-reform.org.uk / 07979 696 265)


View an embargoed version of the full study here: http://electoral-reform.org.uk/sites/default/files/THE%20COST%20OF%20ONE...

Findings are only reported for English councils outside of London as London boroughs represent a special case on their own, due to the two-tier government structure and London’s special economic position within England.


[1] One-party councils: those with ‘weak electoral accountability’, where at least 10% of the local council seats were only contested by one party/candidate in the last elections, or where one party controlled upwards of two-thirds of the council seats between 2006 and 2015, or both.

[2] Competitive councils: those councils which do not fall into the above category.

[3] Corruption Risk Index: an indicator representing the probability of corrupt contract award and delivery in public procurement. This is based on six red flags:

1.       Only a single bid is submitted
2.       No publication of call for tenders in official public procurement journal
3.       Using less open procedures such as invitation tenders
4.       Period between advertising a tender and submission deadline is too short
5.       Subjective, hard-to-quantify evaluation criteria
6.       Time given for decision is excessively short or lengthy

[4] [4] See our analysis here: http://www.electoral-reform.org.uk/blog/the-best-of-the-worst-of-2011s-l...

[5] Price savings: In order to gather further evidence of the link between weak electoral accountability and higher corruption risks in local government contracting, councils’ average price savings were compared. Price savings are calculated using the ratio of originally estimated contract value and final contract value, with higher savings indicating that the final contract value went below the original estimate – most likely due to healthy competition among bidders.

Scotland needs to get a grip on election turnout

26th July 2012
26 Jul 2012
local government
elections 2012


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020 7202 8601

Scotland needs to get a grip on election turnout

Following the inability of Scottish authorities to publish basic data on turnout in May’s Local elections the Electoral Reform Society Scotland has published its own figures.

Based on the data available (see note 1), the turnout across Scotland’s 32 local authorities is 39.7%.

The data gathering has also highlighted huge inconsistencies in how individual councils handle data on public engagement .

The Society has now called for the Scottish Government to take responsibility for publishing an accurate turnout figure, including calculating methodology in a timely manner.

Willie Sullivan, Director of the Electoral Reform Society in Scotland, said:

Election turnout figures are fundamental for monitoring the health of any democracy. In Scotland we haven’t even agreed how to measure it.

The Scottish Government and the Electoral Management Board must work to improve the consistency of reporting across councils and publish an agreed methodology. Only then will we know for sure who’s turning out and who’s turning off from our democracy.

ERS Scotland has just launched Democracy-Max, a yearlong enquiry into the health of Scottish democracy. Following a packed public meeting on Saturday 14th July, Sullivan added:

Turn out is falling, but there is a real appetite among the Scottish public for engagement in the political process. People have to have some confidence that expressing there view will have some sort of effect on the way they are governed . Our investigation into what makes a ‘Good Scottish Democracy ‘ is an ambitious 12 month programme attempting to imagine a political system that will deepen that confidence.”


Notes to editors

Note 1: Methodology:

To calculate the turnout figure, we sourced each council area's declarations and input the data for reported turnout, total valid votes and percentage turnout per ward.

Since several councils did not publish details of their total electorate figures, we worked backwards to calculate the electorate of each ward by dividing the reported ward turnout figure by the ward percentage turnout and multiplying by 100. Totalling the ward electorate figures, we reached an estimated national electorate figure of 3,990,398.

The local government electorate figure (as at 1 December 2011, published in February 2012) was 4,010,000, some 19,000 more than the estimated figure we calculated. This is within the margin of error for statistical analysis, and given 4 months passed between the publication of this figure and the election itself, can be accounted for by natural changes in the population (there were, for example, 14,218 deaths registered by the General Register Office Scotland between 1 January and 31 March 2012).

We then divided the total of the ward reported turnouts (1,584,130) by the estimated national electorate figure (3.990,398) and multiplied by 100 to reach a national turnout figure of 39.7%

While the actual electorate figures are still to be finalised, based on the available information (and the electorate numbers which the councils themselves are declaring their figures against) we believe this to be the most accurate way of calculating the electorate figure with the information currently available.

A spreadsheet providing the ward-level data and the calculations involved is available on request.

Note 2: The people gathering

The people gathering was the commencement of the Electoral Reform Society’s investigation into what would make the ‘Good Scottish Democracy’ or ‘Democracy Max’

Note 3: Last local election

The last time Scotland held a Local Government election decoupled from a parliamentary election was in 1995, when the turnout was 44.9%. Thus the 2012 election indicates a clear fall from that election, though the 39.7% turnout in Scotland is significantly higher than the corresponding figure in England for 2012 of 31%.

The Electoral Reform Society Scotland is collating data for each of Scotland’s 353 council wards in an extensive analysis of the election results, with the turnout data just a small element of this project. As a small office, this is an incredibly lengthy process, but the collating of turnout would be very straightforward for the relevant government department should a centrally agreed methodology be found .