SysRq F12

Part three of a series of articles looking at the Conservative local government green paper, Shift Control.

This time, chapter two. This chapter is about localism, and promises that a Conservative Government would:

  • give local residents the power to determine the balance between the level of council tax and the level of services
    delivered;

  • drastically reduce the centrally imposed bureaucratic burdens that drive up council tax;
  • hugely enlarge the freedom of local councils to act in the best interests of residents by giving them a ‘general
    power of competence’;

  • return to local councils the freedom to determine how they carry out their statutory regulatory duties;
  • abolish all process targets applied to local authorities, and free councils from intrusive and ineffective inspection
    regimes by abolishing the Comprehensive Area Assessment; and

  • end all forced amalgamations of local authorities.

I’ve italicised the parts that are relevant to democracy issues.

The general power of competence is something that local government has been asking for for some time. It would give local government more of an independent legal standing – they could implement good ideas without seeking specific legislative support from Parliament. The wellbeing power is something that comes close, and lessons from that suggest that there are real institutional barriers to its use. On the basis of that experience, the Conservatives would probably need to provide more than a power on its own, particularly at a time when existing services are being constrained by financial pressures.

Ending forced amalgamations of local government probably means ending all amalgamations of local government. On this, the Conservatives appear to be supporting councillors’ views rather than trying to bypass them. I may be wrong, but I can’t think of a unitarisation or merger proposal, at least in recent years, that has had support from the elected members in both councils involved.

This is an interesting battleground for local versus national views. From a civil service perspective, there is no rationale other than bureaucratic history behind some of the current local government boundaries. As the LGA have been saying for a while, they don’t match up with functional economic areas, and they often don’t even match the boundaries of built-up areas, as in Norwich, Nottingham and Cambridge. Politically, local government bureaucracy is a tasty target for Treasury cost-cutting. Against that centralist pressure, the democratically elected members of councils will be steadfastly opposed to any changes to boundaries, or unitarisation.

I suspect that a Conservative government looking for expenditure cuts will find this promise hard to live up to.

The most surprising proposal in the chapter is the idea that voters might get a referendum on local council tax increases. I’m quite torn on this. I’ve said here before that one-off referendums on national issues are not helpful or useful, because you can’t take anything meaningful from the results. At the same time, I don’t have such a negative attitude to referendums that are a recognised part of a process, and take place on a fairly regular basis, as in Switzerland.

The proposal here is that a referendum might take place if the council proposed a tax increase higher than a nationally-set cap. Call it ‘soft capping’. Councils would know that setting a rate higher than the soft cap would risk an embarrassing referendum defeat, as well as incurring the balloting cost, which at least for Broadland DC in Norfolk, is about £50,000 per referendum.

Part of this proposal is political cleverness – abolish hard capping and replace it with something almost as effective. I suspect that soft capping enforced by local referendums is a little bit better than capping enforced by a distant Government minister. Not better than no capping at all, but the chances of that happening under any plausible Government are very, very small.

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Elsewhere

The Local Democracy blog may be a bit quieter than usual this week as a couple of the contributors will be away. However, I posted a long-ish article on the Liberal Conspiracy weblog yesterday timed to coincide with the Convention on Modern Liberty.

Signposts off

Do keep an eye on the Google Reader page that I’ve set up – I’m trying to track as much of the blogosphere’s comment on local democracy as I can – particularly where there is anything that touches on interactivity.

If you have your own shared items, please send me an e-mail from the gmail account that you run it from – send it to policybrief (at) gmail dot com – we’ll then be able to see each other’s shared items and between us, halve the effort we need to put in.

There are three outstanding posts that I’ve seen recently that deserve pointing to again though:

1: Podnosh – Key questions – local government and social media

2: Peter Hetherington – a botched attempt at local democracy

3: Lee Bryant – Public services are more important than online election campaigns

Beecham on the Conservative local government proposals

I’d very much like to find someone who’ll write a guest post here defending the Conservative proposals for local government – particularly the large-scale reliance upon referendums.

Here’s Labour local government big-beast Sir Jeremy Beecham on the proposals. Warning: It’s not kind.

The commentariat and their version of democracy

simon_jenkins_140x140

Simon Jenkins - paid to adopt the easy high-ground?

I’d like to start a national campaign – if you’ll join me in it  – in which the columnists who denounce the actions of elected politicians are obliged to step forward, say what they are in favour of themselves, and defend it.

If this were to happen, I’d ask for The Times / Guardian columnist Simon Jenkins to be first on the stand:

In the Guardian the other day, he started a piece on ‘localism’ thus:

“When I hear a politician proclaiming his localism I count the spoons.”

I have to say that, when I read a member of the professional commentariat claiming some sort of superiority over elected politicians, I count mine. This isn’t an attack on one political position against another. It’s a general dig at politicians.

Jenkins – perhaps more than any commentator I’ve read in the UK broadsheet press – specialises in a promotion of populist direct democracy without ever actually coming out and formally making the case for it.

He presents himself as a plain-and-simple democrat when in fact he is advocating a widespread use of referendums instead of the election of representatives. I’ve never seen him stick his head above the parapet and defend plebiscites against the many moral criticisms that they should attract.

Take this post, for example:

“Have you noticed how the political establishment hates elections? It regards them as vulgar, foreign, exhibitionist and unpredictable. To those in power they are mere concessions to mob rule. If electors did not insist on them, elections would have been abolished long ago as Victorian gimmicks to appease proletarian sentiment.”

That article requires a very close reading before you realise what’s wrong with it. In every case here, when he advocates ‘elections’ he actually means ‘referendums’ – read the article and see if I’m wrong about this. And if he had used the correct word, then I suspect that a large proportion of his readers would have sided with the politicians who ‘hate elections.’ But the intention of the piece can only be to sneak an argument for referendums in under the guise of a more general argument for more local democracy.

So, it was with some relief, initially, that I read his criticism of the Conservatives’ proposals for local government – heavily reliant upon plebiscites as they are. Curiously – for someone who has so consistently promoted this populism, he refrained from endorsing Cameron’s proposals for directly elected officials and numerous referendums. Reprising the De Tocqueville quote that was used here, he concluded that it was not in the DNA of national politicians to promote decentralised government, and that you can tell what they really mean by following the money.

But then it struck me: For all of his calling for more powers to be held locally, his berating of …

“the reluctance of politicians to trust people to reach mature decisions on how they are governed”

…the word ‘councillor’ is entirely missing from the whole 1000+ word article. Very odd in an article that demands stronger local government, don’t you think?

I wonder what we need to do to smoke him out on this one?

Command Backspace

Part two of a series of articles on the Conservative green paper on local government, which are also appearing on the Democratic Society blog.

Section one of the green paper discusses local housing and economic growth. The Conservatives’ proposals are:

  • enable local authorities to benefit financially when they deliver the housing that local people need;
  • give local authorities the right to retain the financial benefits arising from new business activity in their areas;
  • give local authorities a new discretionary power to levy business rate discounts; and
  • make the local government funding settlement more transparent.

There are two things to pick up on from a democratic perspective. The first is the plan to give businesses a vote over business rate increases, the second the intention to make housing or business growth more financially beneficial to councils.

The idea of a referendum on business rate increases comes from the Business Improvement District scheme. I know that at least some areas have passed referendums to levy BID payments – but that has been on the basis that the increased rates would be spent in the immediate locality, in a manner of which businesses approve.

Subjecting a supplementary business rate to the same sort of referendum is unlikely to be as successful. First, the supplementary rate is potentially across the whole of a local authority area. Second, the discretion on how to spend it (and whether to levy it) is with the local authority. That makes it a much harder deal to sell, and I suspect makes the Supplementary Business Rate a dead letter.

The second issue is promoting housing and development. The green paper wants to move away from regional decision making and national targets that tell councils what to do and thump them if they fail. The rationale is to make development financially worth it to local government. As the paper says:

“little of the economic gain [from new development] is captured by the local community.”

This implies two things – first, that local developments don’t bring economic benefits to local communities; and second, that aligning the financial incentives for councils will make the problem go away.

I suspect that both these points are wrong. First, and trivially, the green paper fails to distinguish councils (which don’t get much cash benefit from new development) from communities (who often do).

This seems pedantic, but it’s important. Local shops benefit from new customers, and businesses from new employees, if new housing is built. Residents get new job opportunities if new businesses move into town. There’s a lot of benefit there – it just doesn’t go to the council except through trickle-down of business rates and a few application fees.

Logically, if councillors represent communities and communities benefit from development, councils should support development. The fact that they don’t shows up is the other weakness of the approach – it assumes that financial incentives trump everything else. In fact, if you listen to people who oppose developments, they complain about traffic, about rowdiness, about overdevelopment – everything, in fact, except the fact that the council aren’t making enough profit from the thing.

We have to assume that they are telling the truth – and they probably are. After all, if there is a development down the road, it doesn’t benefit individual residents much. It might benefit the community, but there’s no requirement to act in a pro-community way, and people can in any case easily convince themselves that traffic, rowdiness, etc., trump the financial benefits.

So why would financial benefits to councils matter? Two possibilities: people are lying about why they oppose development, for which there is no evidence. Alternatively, councils might really be persuaded to oppose their electors’ wishes by getting a bit more cash for the authority. I sometimes get annoyed by nimbyism, but I do hope our councillors aren’t quite that venal.

A defence of political parties: Part 1

I’d like to write a series of posts here in defence of the political Party system. I’m conscious that this is not an elegant or fashionable position to take, and it’s certainly not one of those lines that you can defend in the 140 character Twitter template.

I’d go further: It takes a series of blog-posts – a set of milestones. It’s like fighting the great Earnie Shavers – there are about a dozen knockout punches that can be aimed at you early on – but if you can take the fight the distance, you often have a good chance of winning it.

Before I really get into the meat of it though, could I ask you to indulge me in something?

Just go here – I’ve pointed to this site before (it’s a few years old, but it still illustrates something very valuable – it was created by the late Chris Lightfoot) – fill it out willya?

political-survey

If you want to, and you’re not too worried about showing your political colours, you can grab the URL of the results page and save it – or paste it into the comments box here?

I’ll explain why later.