KIRAN MATHUR MOHAMMED
The idyllic town: where plump aldermen wreathed in gold chains gamely drink tea with local housewives on well-trimmed lawns.
This daydream is not what comes to mind for most of us when we think about our towns, boroughs or councils.
Beyond the grand concepts of development, sometimes people just need their rubbish picked up, their drains cleared, and their potholes plugged. In fact, most of us would be quite happy if the government did just that and left us alone.
Parliamentary committee meetings have exposed the central government’s frustration with some local corporations, with the whiff of corruption and inefficiency joining that of uncollected rubbish heaps.
Our potholes have become apocryphal. Many are old friends.
And the people of central and south Trinidad are still coping with last year’s floods – made worse by clogged drains and streams.
Things have improved, with the help of some committed mayors and councillors. But the underlying system is in trouble.
What can we do quickly to reform?
Local government is meant to be more efficient because it is more directly accountable to communities. But in our last election, turnout was just 34.3 per cent. With voter turnout so low, it is little wonder that some elected officials feel accountable only to themselves.
Yet increasing voter engagement may be easier than we think. The Kinder Institute has analysed more than 1,000 California mayoral elections. They found that when local elections were held at the same time as presidential elections, turnout was 22.1 per cent higher. We can hold our local government elections “on-cycle” with our parliamentary elections.
More than that, a 2017 study by the Kinder Institute found that more than half of all mayoral elections in six US states featured only one candidate. Data is TT is scarce, but few people talk about local government as a vocation. We have many talented people from the private sector (including highly qualified retirees) who can be encouraged to run.
Under-served rural communities – like those affected by the floods – would have a greater voice. They can highlight what we already know. The economic and personal benefits of preventing floods greatly outweigh the upfront costs.
If local government is more democratic, corporations will be forced to engage more and respond to voters’ concerns. And with a greater mandate, they can more successfully lobby the central government for investment in money-saving technology.
Take Ecube Labs’ new solar-powered bins. They have automatic built-in compactors that allow them to hold up to eight times more waste. And their solar power source means they require less maintenance. By holding more waste, these bins significantly reduce the number of times a rubbish truck needs to stop by: and the cost of collection.
Some of the savings could be used to cover the costs of collecting recyclable materials and increasing the number of recycling bins. This can help us to properly integrate recycling into communities, as almost all major European countries (and some of our Caribbean neighbours) have done years ago.
New-materials science promises even more dramatic innovation. The Nottingham Transportation Engineering College has been working on “self-healing” roads. Researchers have been adding capsules of sunflower or tall oil to old-fashioned asphalt. When roads start to crack, the capsules break open and release the oil, filling in cracks. If proven on new roads, this could delay the first pot-holes by at least five years, saving billions.
With a mandate, local governments might also attempt to raise their own revenue and try new incentive models. Some US counties have pioneered rubbish charges. People are given tags which they place on their rubbish bags. They are then charged by the waste they produce. This disincentivises excessive waste and reduces costs.
At the same time, waste collection companies can be paid by the pound of rubbish they collect – incentivising them to reach more remote communities.
Restoring democracy to local government is more straightforward than we think. And more important. Profs George Kelling and John Wilson famously wrote: “If a window in a building is broken and is left unrepaired, all the rest of the windows will soon be broken.” Psychologically, our immediate environment affects how we see society and our place in it.
A simple thing like installing lights in King George V Park has transformed that neighbourhood at night, with hundreds of families, friends and footballers creating a real sense of spirit.
If our neighbourhoods are clean and orderly, we are likely to want to build them. It is the cornerstone of pride: in our community and in our country.
Kiran Mathur Mohammed is a social entrepreneur, economist and businessman. He is a former banker, and a graduate of the University of Edinburgh.