Getting the politics right for reform

Matthew Taylor, former No 10 policy wonk, has an interesting article on his blog about public service reform. He rightly says that finances over the next few years are both a huge challenge to public services, but also an opportunity to make real change happen. That won’t come about, he says, without a change in the national political culture, starting from the top:

There are far too many ministers, all of whom think it is their job to generate initiatives; ideas are allowed to be developed and launched without any reference to those at the front line; change management and the time it takes is not treated seriously; there is complete lack of realism about how far the centre’s intended messages actually reach; civil servants fail to see or warn (or be allowed to warn) their masters that every new target or piece of guidance had an adverse impact on all these existing targets and instructions (not to mention local morale).

No disrespect to Matthew, but this is a very technocratic argument. The idea that there should be fewer ministers is perhaps not a bad one – though it needs to happen alongside a more powerful and independent Commons and a reformed Lords. No matter how many Ministers there are, however, they will still be put on a spot on the Today programme and asked to make a commitment that “[bad thing] will never be allowed to happen again.”

There are certainly real opportunities for reform in the fiscal squeeze that’s ahead. The barrier to transformation, though, is not hyperactive Ministers who don’t let technocrats manage, it’s an immature political dialogue in which the media and the public create and feed off outrage and disgust, while politicians sit on top of the bureaucracy and try to placate the beast.

This is a local government problem as much as a national government one. Anyone who has seen parents protesting about school places or attended a controversial meeting of the planning committee will understand that.

If the spending cuts to come are not to create more disaffection and anger, they can’t be done behind closed doors. They need to be discussed openly, in public, and real choices have to be set out clearly, not decided and then ‘consulted upon’.

People should have the chance to see the books, and have intermediaries more trusted than journalists to explain to them what the choices are. They then need to be able to express an opinion more nuanced than ‘I want everything for free’.

Creating the circumstances in which this can happen is part of a widening and deepening of active citizenship that is essential if the political world is to catch up with what today’s citizens expect.

I’m not so naive as to think that this level of openness will appear in the twelve months before a general election, although it would be nice to think that it could. Afterwards, though, if Labour or the Conservatives are really serious about localism and democratic reform, a big conversation, not a Big Conversation, needs to be created.


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?

Councils v local newspapers?

A few weeks ago, Roy Greenslade picked up on a growing opposition to Council-run free newspapers.

As he notes, the opposition comes both from smaller political parties locally, and from commercial rivals that are being edged out – as they see it.

Elsewhere, we are seeing growing demands for a journalistic ‘bail-out’ – and not just from bug-eyed Marxist fanatics either. Certainly, a lot of the clearly drawn ethical lines that have protected the near-monopolies of some local newspapers are being challenged from many quarters.

On the one hand, a strong local democracy requires a powerful independent journalistic voice, and if the Council does anything to damage this ecology, then it would be difficult to defend.

However, I think that there is an opportunity here. The National Union of Journalists are firmly of the view that some local newspapers are cutting back on journalists – not because they can’t afford them, but because their current business model allows them to make sufficient advertising revenues without much investment in original content. Continue reading

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.

Shift Delete

Local decision-making should be less constrained by central government, and also more accountable to local people. We will encourage democratic innovations in local government, including pilots of the idea of elected mayors with executive powers in cities.

David Cameron’s green paper Shift Control, published yesterday? No, the 1997 Labour manifesto, and if you want a good hearty laugh, I recommend going to read the rest of the chapter on localism.

I’ll be taking a look at Shift Control from a democratic perspective over the course of a few posts, since it is the fullest Conservative policy statement we are likely to get before the election manifesto, and they are probably going to be in power in eighteen months’ time.

Before getting into the detail, it’s worth starting with a realistic assessment of what is going to happen to localism in 2010. Parties that have power at local level and not at national level are fond of pledging their support for localism. In power, their enthusiasm disappears. Like proportional representation, giving away 20% of power sounds great when you have 0%, and dreadful when you have 100%.

Perhaps the Conservatives mean to be different – let’s hope they do. But even if their intentions are pure, once in office it would take a will of iron to resist media pressure to do something when the next local government crisis happens. No recent British politician has had that iron will.

The problem lies not with the duplicity of politicians, but with a calculation of self-interest. Letting local politicians take decisions brings no credit when things go well, but media opprobrium when things go badly. Baby P was a national scandal, but in theory the voters of Haringey are the only ones who can punish the politicians responsible. In practice, of course, scandals like that influence general election voting across the country.

Telling a politician that they should localise is like giving an employee a bonus of £1 if he succeeds, and executing him if he doesn’t. Risk-aversion is guaranteed.

In the next post, I’ll look at the green paper pledges on business growth.

Died in a church and was buried along with her name … nobody came

The Eleanor Rigby statue in Liverpool

The Eleanor Rigby statue in Liverpool

Councils are burying more lonely people.


(Via Ingrid)