A long term vision for local government in England


Asking where politicians and political parties stand at a time where the structure of local government is long overdue an overhaul

For those of you who have been following my historical research on Cambridge the town, the structure of local government comes up time and again. Modern local government as a provider of public services first came about with the Municipal Corporations Act 1835, with the creation of modern day county councils under the Local Government Act 1888 – following which the citizens of Cambridge have remained under the thumb of their rural compatriots, holding back the development and progress within the town following centuries of oppression from Cambridge University authorities. Or so we would believe. Actually it’s a lot more complicated than that as institutions and individuals within them have on many an occasion defied the stereotype.

When Cambridge Borough made its first bid for freedom from the county in the run up to the First World War, it was Conservative MP for Cambridge, and later fascist sympathiser Almeric Paget (later Lord Queenborough) who made the case for Cambridge to become a ‘county borough’ or a unitary council. It was the Liberal MP for what is now South Cambridgeshire (but back then Cambridge County) Edwin Montague, then Undersecretary at the India Office (a major department of state in the day) who – speaking on the private members bill concerned, made the case against. See my blogpost here.

Fast forward to the mid-1970s and Conservative politicians in Cambridge made the case against their rural party colleagues for Cambridge to become a unitary council. Instead, through the deft move of pen and paper, schools and libraries transferred permanently away from the city council to the county council, and the Liberal and Labour councillors in the former have been complaining about the sell off of city public services to fund Tory tax cuts ever since.

The current broken structure of Cambridgeshire

Several of you may have seen this or various versions of, by Smarter Cambridge Transport.


Governance of Cambridgeshire following the signing of the Greater Cambridge City Deal.

Now the county’s Local Enterprise Partnership has since been wound up after National Audit Office and the Public Accounts Committee investigated financial issues raised by North East Cambridgeshire MP Steve Barclay. Never a good idea to get on the wrong side of an MP who happens to be a Treasury Minister at the same time.

The current structure of local governance and government in Cambridgeshire has not been the result of extensive research, but rather party political expediency. 

My personal take is that institutionally, the Conservative hierarchy sees Cambridge as an aristocratic inheritance and the current situation where not a single elected Conservative councillor holds a local council seat inside Cambridge City represents something of a constitutional outrage that His Majesty The King should do something about.

But it’s not just the Tories that are capable of doing stuff like this. Back in 2009, Labour made a botched attempt to take the cities of Exeter and Norwich out of the orbit of their county councils. Botched because the civil service at the time (and I was in the department concerned) refused to sign off the plans because of value for money concerns. The Permanent Secretary at the time had to ask for a ministerial direction in order to absolve himself and his civil servants from responsibility over the policy’s value for money. When a Permanent Secretary does this, this is a big red button that alerts Parliament to start investigating and scrutinising the policy in a very big way. You can see why Labour wanted to proceed – the 2010 general election was only a few months away. In the end, Eric Pickles took over and stomped on the plans. And started a huge program of cuts that we still have the legacy of.

We are over eight years down the line from that general election, and today local councils are making the news over their risk assessments and contingency plans over Brexit. At the same time we are living in a world where local councils are expected by ministers to deliver what they deliver with a lot less – and also to cut back on as many activities as possible. Ultimately this has led to the sorts of problems that Conservative-run Northamptonshire County Council now faces, where it is struggling to deliver on public services and is effectively a failing council. Years of voting through minimal council tax rises have come home to bite. As things stand, all new expenditure by the council has been banned with the exception of spending on statutory services – where the council is required by law to provide a service. The reason why it matters to Cambridge is because Cambridgeshire County Council has a shared services agreement through this LGSS vehicle. Could problems in Northants hit Cambridgeshire?

“Where next for local councils?”

Cllr Stephen Canning asked this in his blogpost here. The paragraphs below make for interesting reading.

“The very definition of a council service also needs to be reviewed to ensure that in the 21st century it meets up to both the expectations its future consumers will have on it and the changing way they’ll wish to access it.

In a hypermobile world a static council with its obscure functions and processes, its opaque structure and its endless forms is not an organisation that ‘Generation Z’ will want to transact with. Services will need to be redesigned and redefined from the front end to the back end.”

The first thing to be clear about when any politician talks about a state institution and policies for it, are what their political principles are for that institution. The reason being is that it is from those principles that the policies flow. At the most extreme ends of the political spectrum of public service delivery are minimal state at one end, to the monopoly provider of cradle-to-grave public services at the other. As a Conservative councillor, it’s fairly safe to say that Cllr Canning doesn’t subscribe to big state municipal socialism! As he makes clear in his blogpost, the challenge he sets out for local councils is primarily as a service provider for those in most need.

The bit where Cllr Canning is very much a pioneer is with how local councils can use new communications and computing technologies to inform decisions made on service delivery. For example using social media in civil emergencies (eg snow storms closing schools) to using big and live data (for example with live bus times sent straight to mobile phones via apps).

Why I have issues both with big state and also with minimal state mindsets

In part, I’ve found out the hard way and have seen close hand how both models of public service delivery are struggling in this tech-rich age we’re living in. That’s also not to say that *Oooh! There is a third way and it’s over here with the Liberal Democrats!* is the answer.

The overarching problem with the big state model is that the incentive creates a culture of dependency on whoever is the provider of the money – in this case The Treasury. Until there is some sort of devolution of tax and revenue raising powers set out in law that don’t require the continual sign off from The Treasury, local councils will forever be looking over their shoulder or hesitating to commit to interesting projects because they want to cover themselves financially if anything goes wrong. Furthermore, too many decisions end up tied up in a tier of management where staff at a lower tier in the hierarchy are waiting forever and a day for a senior manager to sign something off when in reality said senior manager should have either delegated the decision or not have gone on an empire-building mission in the first place – thus tasked with too many responsibilities.

As for the problems with minimal state, you only have to follow the news feeds from charities and/or campaigning groups working on the front line – such as food banks – to see the state that too many people find themselves in. You also run the risk of creating ‘sinks’ where people who need the most help are effectively put, and thus those areas not surprisingly find themselves struggling to cope with issues of multiple deprivation. Eglantyne Jebb spent her Cambridge years dealing with these issues before going on to found Save The Children. Personally I have issues with us going backwards in the opposite direction to which Eglantyne, Florence Ada Keynes, Clara Rackham and the women heroes who made modern Cambridge were taking our town in.

The evolution of Eglantyne’s political principles also make for interesting reading – she arrived in Cambridge as a soft Conservative, became a pro-suffragist Liberal and left Cambridge as a co-operator at a time when the Co-operative Party were not in alliance with the Labour Party. (The party still exists – with a number of MPs standing as Labour and Co-operative MPs – one of whom, Meg Hillier, chairs the Public Accounts Committee).

“What about this vision of local government?”

I was at a meeting at Shire Hall today with some interested parties sorting out all things buses in and around Cambridge. (I’m a founder member of the new Cambridge Area Bus Users’ Group as I use buses almost daily, so it kinda makes sense). The one thing that was clear to me at the end of the meeting was how laws passed by Parliament to change the way local councils did things, were actually making things worse for bus users rather than better. Stagecoach Group is the main bus provider in and around Cambridge and being a private company won’t provide bus services on routes it sees as, and says are unprofitable, unless subsidised. But we have no way of interrogating their claims as they are not subject to the Freedom of Information Act (and even if they were, would be able to claim such data as being commercially sensitive). Hence the feeling in the room was for campaigning to persuade Mayor James Palmer to use his powers to franchise the bus network. (He’s still considering it last we heard – hence the formation of the bus campaign group).

Cambridge – the country’s most unequal city

It’s not a title we’re proud of, but the cutting of public services and the inability of local councils to tap into all of this wealth being supposedly generated are really not helping things. What’s the point of having this reputation of being this jewel in the economic crown if we can’t use nearly enough of the wealth to clean our streets properly, build decent recycling facilities (An incinerator? Really??!?), or deal with our century-long problem of traffic on roads?

What sort of support to civic life should local government be providing?

Again for me this comes back to what your individual principles are. The sense I get with Cambridgeshire Conservatives is that local councils have a minimal role in this, and instead local councillors can support whichever named charities they choose at traditional fund-raising nights. At the other end of the scale, you’ll find politicians in other parties who may well say that some charities should not need to exist – for example food banks – because the properly resourced welfare state should be ensuring that everyone has enough to eat.

Should local councils be supporting things like ‘the arts’?

A very easy target – the arts world luvvies, scourge of the tabloid press for being privately-educated liberal-leaning champagne socialists! And yes, the media and the arts have more than a few issues as well when it comes to inequalities and access.

One of the first people to try and deal with this in modern times was someone in Florence Ada Keynes’ circle – the poet Rupert Brooke, who was best friends with her younger son Geoffrey – later Sir Geoffrey Keynes the surgeon.

***Oh Rupert! The romantic war poet who was so tragically taken away from us!***

Yes – The Archers commissioned a statue in their garden in Granchester where Brooke wrote poetry – and invited Mrs Thatcher to unveil it in the company of Andrew Lansley.

***Oh, how splendid!***

Rupert Brooke hated the Tories.

***No he didn’t!***

Yes he did – he campaigned against them in the 1910 general elections – finishing one diary entry with the phrase “I hate the upper classes!”

***Rooopert you traitor!!!!***

According to Etonian Hugh Dalton, another close friend of Rupert Brooke, had he lived he may well have joined the Labour Party after the war – as Dalton did, later becoming Chancellor of the Exchequer after unsuccessfully standing for election to Parliament in Cambridge.

***I can’t believe Roo B. was a red-flag-waving, rich-man-taxing, big-state building socialist!!!***

Heartbreakin’, innit?

“What’s this got to do with local government again?”

Rupert Brooke wrote something about the arts and local government that everyone has forgotten about. Or never knew about. Until now.

“What did he write?”

This: Note who wrote the preface


Essentially Rupert Brooke makes the case that the arts should be much more accessible to the people, should be funded by local councils (he gave this lecture in 1910 – in the days before really big modern centralised departments of state, although the transcript wasn’t published until 1946 by Sir G.)

So, Rupert Brooke’s vision for local government had a big place for rate-payer-subsidised arts.


And recall it was the older brother of Sir Geoffrey Keynes, the economist Lord Maynard Keynes, who set up The Arts Council while he was in The Treasury. Two years after Sir Geoffrey published Rupert Brooke’s lecture on Democracy and The Arts, Treasury gave powers to local councils to spend money on the arts. This took place shortly after Keynes had overseen the construction of The Arts Theatre in Cambridge, which was happening at the same time as his mother, Florence Ada Keynes was overseeing the construction of The Guildhall in Cambridge on the opposite side of the road. One of the most controversial public building projects in Cambridge’s history.

Now, Florence Ada Keynes had a vision for local government in the face of the big problems of her day, and was incredibly influential in making huge, if sometimes painfully slow progress in achieving it.

The challenge for political parties – in particular Labour – is to come up with a clear vision for the future of local government *and* how to achieve it. Otherwise they risk making the same mistakes Tony Blair made in the late 1990s, bypassing local government and instead trying to control things from the centre by forming a new generation of non-departmental public bodies. Such institutions are just as easy to get rid of as they are to create. What is much harder to do (politically at least) is to take away the freedoms from local councils that have previously been granted. Can you imagine a future government getting rid of the Mayor of London as an institution? It would take a huge political crisis to agitate a minister to do that.



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