Do ministers have a positive vision for local government in England?

Summary:

According to the House of Commons Public Accounts Committee, the picture doesn’t look good.

190207 LGC localgov finances unsustainable

The headline in the Local Government Chronicle – one of the specialist sector publications covering local councils. (Read the article here).

Meg Hillier MP, the Chair of the Public Accounts Committee – and thus one of the most influential MPs in the House of Commons, didn’t hold back her criticism.

Conclusions and recommendations from the House of Commons Spending Watchdog

Which is effectively what the Committee is – the National Audit Office reports to it. Have a look at the Committee’s recommendations and come to your own conclusions.

A broken system between central and local government

Picture this: You’ve spent years – decades even – working your socks of for your political party. You’ve pounded the streets in all weathers, stood for election in utterly unwinnable wards for local elections, and have done more than your fair share of late night committee work on your local council. At the nth time of trying, you get elected to Parliament representing your home constituency/a safe constituency ages away, and have plugged away on the back benches defending the indefensible and generally keeping the party management happy. Finally you get promoted to the dizzying heights of a junior ministerial post in local government policy, where you have a team of officials and a budget on which you can spend on what you like in your new policy area.

“Central government financial support for local government continues to be characterised by one-off, short-term initiatives, which do not provide value for money, rather than a meaningful long-term financial plan for the sector.”

Above – the first recommendation from the committee: Get rid of all of those short term initiatives. But then what is there for a junior minister to do other than to defend legislation during committee scrutiny sessions that the TV news never covers, but are essential for scrutinising new laws. You can get a feel for what life is like on these committees on Parliament.TV that only policy geeks and highly paid lobbyists keep an eye on. I’ve written ministerial speaking notes during my time – it’s extensive work for a very short amount of lines that end up on the statute books. In my case it was 100 pages of speaking notes for about 3 pages of clauses being scrutinised.

Let a thousand flowers bloom!

Over a decade ago during my civil service days, I joined one of the teams responsible for delivering a new local government White Paper [Communities in Control] when the Local Government Secretary was Hazel Blears MP, and Gordon Brown was Prime Minister. This was a very different time politically compared to anything that happened after 2010. One of the things I recall from the time was that a whole host of different schemes and ideas were being supported by a significant program of funding (over £100m over three years) taking place all over the country to find out what worked, and to share that learning. This was also supported by a heavily-staffed network of regional offices (long since closed by the Coalition).

Both this approach – the offer of lots of funding but with lots of strings attached, along with the huge cuts that followed causing many councils to reduce their functions to little more than what the law requires them to provide (i.e. “statutory services”) demonstrate a lack of confidence in local government as a concept.

Has central government always distrusted local government?

One thing to remember about the pre-2010 world is that in the grand scheme of things, it predated the arrival of social media in public policy. So in one sense we’re not really comparing like-with-like as far as scrutiny by the general public is concerned. Technology has been a huge driver.

Technology was also a huge driver in the growth and development of modern municipal government in the Victorian era as politicians struggled to deal with the symptoms and fallout of rapid population growth and rapid industrialisation. The mindset – even as late as the 1860s was that the urban poor should take responsibility for themselves to improve their condition. Even enlightened minds such as Professor Henry Fawcett, the Postmaster General, made this point in his opening speech to the newly opened Cambridge Workingmen’s Club on East Road, Cambridge. It was in the 1890s that we really started hearing about some radical policies for universal public services, such as Rollo Russell’s case for a National Health Service.

One of the things that enabled the growth – including the management and funding – of municipally run public services, were improvements in technology, in particular communications. While the railways get the historical headlines, around the same time huge leaps were being made in the development of the telegraph. Successive pieces of legislation throughout the 1800s passed by Parliament empowered local councils to take on new responsibilities and charge rate payers for the costs – hence the growth of local ratepayers associations to provide a check on the growth of local taxes.

IMG_E6821

Zapped by a referendum of Cambridge ratepayers, John Belcher’s painting of his guildhall design for Mayor Horace Darwin (son of Charles the botanist) 1896/97.

World wars and big state

The growth of ‘big state’ very much happened as a result of the state’s response to the demands of wars – and then the calls to provide ‘homes fit for heroes’ and so on. Continual improvements in communications technologies made it easier for civil servants to manage things from the centre – not without its critics.

261013 Liberal Socialist farming spoof

The Cambridge Chronicle (strong Conservative supporters) of 1926 lampooning the rise of state-employed inspectors. From the Cambridgeshire Collection.

In the battles between Labour and Conservatives in the decades that followed the war years, there were ongoing battles as to what functions should be provided for by the state, and what should be provided for by the private or not-for-profit sectors.

Technology changes again

One of the earliest examples of automation – of modern technology taking over the role previously done by people – is that of the traffic police officer directing traffic at major junctions during rush hour. I still remember seeing the sight of one poor police officer in Athens stuck in the middle of a busy Athens intersection in Greece in the year 2000 when I was there for a student conference. Blue police boxed also came and went in the post war years. How many younger Doctor Who fans can recall seeing an operational police phone box?

It’s not just social media when we talk about technological changes. Automation is another one. Just as typing pools of officials who would turn written manuscripts into typed up papers pre-personal computers are now a thing of the past, it remains to be seen how a new wave of automation can improve public services. Will the long-publicised self-driving cars lead to self-driving ambulances?

Members of Parliament slam the “unacceptable lack of ambition for the sector, with no aspiration for improving local finances beyond merely ‘coping’. “

Across the country the desperate images of people sleeping in the streets were on the front pages of Britain’s national newspapers this week.

The responsibility for dealing with homelessness rests with local councils, but given the state of the housing market bubble combined with perilous local government finances resulting from the cuts in central government support, the symptoms of the lack of funding for public services is there for all to see.

The Treasury’s iron-fisted control of local council finances

Following the huge revolt against Margaret Thatcher’s Poll Tax of 1990, John Major brought in a new system of property-based taxation to help fund local councils. The amount each householder pays in England is based on the value of the property as of 01 April 1991, and the band that it falls into. Which gives more than a hint of the temporary nature of the policy at the time, and reveals that local government revenue raising has been put in the “too difficult to deal with” pile by successive governments and ministers ever since.

This leaves local councils with very little flexibility to raise money elsewhere. In Scotland, Edinburgh wants to try out a tourist tax. Which is all well and good if you have lots of tourists staying overnight, but useless if you are somewhere like Cambridge, Stratford Upon Avon or Bath, where a very large proportion of tourists are ‘day trippers’. Finally, the idea of an income-based levy to fund local services was thrown out in the 1980s because if I recall correctly, the Conservatives did not want to run the risk of having a far left Chancellor of the Exchequer in every other town hall in the country – remember that in the early 1980s this was the Labour Party of Michael Foot – remembered now more kindly as a journalist and an intellectual, but who was monstered in the print press of the day.

“So…who has a positive vision for local government?”

In my opinion not the current administration because so much of their policy capacity has been diverted to deal with the self-inflicted wound called Brexit – of which we’re going into the final straight that runs the high risk of destroying both the Conservative Party and the Labour Party as we know them. I can’t recall a time when high profile MPs from both parties have threatened to resign over the same policy issue at the same time.

With Brexit dominating the media political discourse, there simply isn’t the media space to have what probably is a much-needed discussion not just on how to fund local councils in the 21st Century, but how to tax multinational corporations and large digital companies who may be domiciled elsewhere.

Local government is complicated

But it also has huge opportunities for national politicians who feel they may have hit a dead end. Look at the likes of Sadiq Khan in London and Andy Burnham in Greater Manchester for Labour. Both were senior ministers in Gordon Brown’s administration. Mr Burnham left Jeremy Corbyn’s shadow cabinet in 2016 to stand for Labour as their candidate for executive/metro mayor, while Mr Khan resigned his seat in Parliament the same year, after not taking a shadow ministerial portfolio in 2015.

One thing that both mayoral politicians have been able to do is to take political viewpoints not always in line with the leadership in Westminster. This is because being outside of Parliament and having their own direct mandate from the voters as mayors, they can argue that they are not directly politically accountable to the leader of their party for every move they make or word they say. (Whereas both Cabinet and Shadow Cabinet run on the convention of collective responsibility).

A short blogpost isn’t the place to set out a complex vision for local government that deals with things like providing public services in the face of both climate change and an ageing population – while trying to take on the low levels of trust voters have with the political class generally. (Again, are the levels unprecedented historically or have they always been low?)

The challenge from the Public Accounts Committee for me goes far beyond just admonishing ministers, but goes for all of us. We’ve got to get serious about deciding what services we want our local councils to deliver/provide – and even more so get real[istic] about how we ensure they are provided with the funding, powers and resources to do their jobs.

 

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