Caroline Spelman fails a localism test

Given all the talk of localism in recent months, it is pretty disappointing to see Caroline Spelman, the Conservative shadow Local Government minister, making the following statement (via the BBC) on Council Tax rises:

At a time when millions of workers are facing pay freezes or unemployment this year, it adds insult to injury to drive up bills by a further £41 a year, on top of previous years’ rises. Labour’s refusal to follow the example of Scotland and freeze council tax bills in England is unfair on English taxpayers, who yet again have received a raw deal.

What makes this posturing worse is that there is a real case for the Government to answer on the funding formula, non-domestic rates, LABGI and so on – all of which could be argued from a localist position. And yet we get this attack, which implies that central government is where voters should place the accountability for council tax rises.

Does Ms Spelman think the Westminster Government sets Council Tax? If she realises that councils do, does she know which party is in control in most of them?

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Escape End

Time for one last look at the Conservative party’s local government green paper Shift Control. A quick canter through chapters four and five, and then some conclusions.

Chapter Four is about spending. It says a Conservative Government will:

  • give local people greater control over how central government funds are spent in their area;
  • phase out ring fencing, so that decisions about how councils spend their budgets are taken by councils and their
    citizens alone;

  • make it easier for local government to raise money for local projects on the bond market.

The first point, about greater local control, refers to the Conservative-sponsored Sustainable Communities Act. This Act, according to the Green Paper allows “local governments to identify money spent in their area by central government agencies and then (after consultation with local people) to recommend ways in which it could be spent better by redirecting it to local priorities.”

That description of the Act is correct, in the same way that Lord of the Rings can be summarised as “Go and pop that ring down over there, Frodo”. In practice, between local people and the fulfilment of their desires are (i) the council, who have to choose which ideas to put forward; (ii) the LGA, who have to pick councils’ best ideas to recommend to Government; and (iii) the Government, starring HM Treasury as Sauron.

Now, if the Conservatives are serious about giving the SCA some zip, those obstacles may just fall away, but (as with other protestations of localism from parties in opposition) I am sceptical. I just can’t see the Treasury (or any Minister controlling it) being happy to let local authorities change central budgets, except at the extreme margins. Want to stop benefits payments or cancel a hospital build so you can try a whizzy new idea? Well, maybe we’ll let you take £20k out of the leg ulcer budget.

Chapter Five contains proposals for abolishing regional government, which are so eye-wateringly technical that I’m not even going to repeat the details. In summary, every regional-level strategy and body will be done away with (except in London), and councils will be free to do what they will, as long as they are within national planning guidance. The Regional Development Agencies will either continue or be replaced by alliances of local authorities co-operating on economic issues, depending on local wishes.

I think there’s something to be said for this approach. The regional bodies do their best, but they are big bureaucracies, not democratic institutions. Fundamentally, if we are serious about local democracy, local government should be taking the decisions that need to be taken about housing numbers, development etc. on a sensible grown-up basis. At the moment, anti-development councils jump up and down protesting about centrally imposed plans, pleasing their lobbyists, while avoiding any difficult decisions on their responsibility for the national economy. If they’re trusted with the powers, I suspect that they would use them sensibly.

To wrap up, then, what do I think of the green paper? It’s certainly not a great transformative vision for local government. “Occasionally interesting tinkering” is probably the best that could be said for it.

Good things? Some reasonable thoughts on regions, particularly the idea of local councils creating workable economic sub-regions. That’s important in the areas round London, which are very poorly served by the current regional structure. Warm words on devolving powers and releasing control, for all my scepticism about whether they will ever manage to do so.

Disappointments? The biggest is that the paper makes the same fudge as the current Government about localism. Does localism mean handing things to councils, or does it mean handing things to local people, over the heads of their elected councillors? Who can tell? Localism is a good thing, the Conservatives are in favour of it, the end. It doesn’t say much for the analysis behind the green paper that the difference between the different sorts of localism is never brought out, or even acknowledged.

Why give people referendums on council tax rates, but councils greater power over the location of housing developments? Why should the people of the twelve biggest urban authorities be forced to vote on whether they want a mayor, when the councillors of the thirteenth-biggest can introduce one or abolish one merely by putting it in a manifesto that no-one reads?

I suspect the answer is “because it seemed like a great idea at the time”, but that’s not really good enough for the likely future Government. Labour has tied itself up in knots on localism, and I expected the Conservatives to be clarifying the situation, not jumping in and knotting away themselves.

The paper is also, given its promises of referendums, astonishingly thin on building better day-to-day interactions between residents and councils. I appreciate that the Conservatives can’t be seen to be forcing councils to do things, but why not have a webcasting fund? Twitter training? Something, at least, to show that the Conservatives understand that political engagement can be built up from the local level.

Home PgDn

Time for a look at Chapter three of the Conservative local government green paper, Shift Control.

This chapter is the section of the green paper that focuses on democracy, so there’s a lot to talk about. The chapter says that a Conservative Government would:

  • provide citizens in all our large cities with the opportunity to choose whether to have an elected mayor;
  • give people the power to instigate referendums on local issues;
  • make the police accountable to the people they serve through directly elected commissioners, crime maps and
    quarterly beat meetings;

  • put the power to judge the behaviour of councillors back in the hands of their citizens by abolishing the Standards
    Board, and repeal the rules that prevent councillors representing their constituents’ views on local issues;

  • permit local authorities to devolve unlimited funding to ward councillors; and
  • let local people choose the organisational structures of their local councils.

Directly elected police commissioners deserves a fuller treatment elsewhere, so I won’t discuss it here. I’d only say that the obvious problem is one of competing mandates. Standards Board issues are democratic, in the sense that elected politicians should not be subject to disbarment by unelected civil servants – leaving such issues to the judicial system is by far the better approach.

Devolution of some money to ward level – as a power not a duty – isn’t a bad idea in itself, but the green paper suggests that money will be parcelled out to councillors directly. Participatory budgeting may be relatively untried, but an opportunity to extend it has been missed here. Participatory budgeting also provides a check on process: if individual councillors have sole responsibility for spending, the possibility of ward-level slush funds can’t be ruled out.

Allowing referendums on council governance structures might be a good idea if people knew or cared what their council governance structure was. More likely to be used is the alternative proposal to allow changes based on manifesto commitments. One problem in the proposals is that any referendum would take place at the same time as local government elections. This hasn’t been thought through. If Blanktown Council holds a referendum on whether to create an elected mayor, it has to be before the election cycle or there could be a four-year wait until the proposal is implemented. Far better to have the referendum held on election day in the year before the change comes in.

It’s also not clear what would happen to those places where directly elected mayors already exist. Would a council elected on a manifesto of getting rid of them be able to do so? This is important because elected mayors are sometimes independents, and sometimes from a different party than that controlling the council. It would be unfortunate for democracy, to say the least, if an respected independent mayor could be chucked out by collusion between a local government old guard on the council.

Quite contrary to the anything-goes spirit of the above, another proposal is to force big cities to have referendums on elected mayors whether they want to or not. This is probably the weakest idea in the chapter. Caught – as the government are – between a desire for elected mayors and a reluctance to impose them, the Conservatives have come down in favour of a double fudge. Rather than letting councils be, or imposing mayors, they are going to force councils to hold a referendum (in which most if not all councillors will campaign for a no vote). Then, beyond that, they are proposing to do this on the basis of current authority boundaries. In the case of Manchester, Nottingham, Newcastle, at least, the boundaries are historic irrelevancies. Far better to follow the London model and have directly elected subregional leaders (call them mayors if you like) that cover strategic issues across a range of unitary authorities.

The idea of local referendums triggered by 5% of electors sounds great until the first local referendums for expelling immigrants, leaving the EU, or reintroducing hanging start coming in. There need to be several safeguards on this proposal – first, referendums should be restricted to local government issues (not just issues that affect the locality); second, there should be a participation threshold, of say 20%, for a result to be considered valid; third, the option to hold the referendum outside the normal electoral cycle should be removed: this means that referendum votes would get higher and more representative turnout.

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.

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.