The power of one

3 Jun 05
PETER HETHERINGTON | A month after the election, you might have expected that the blurred policy picture

A month after the election, you might have expected that the blurred policy picture emerging from the reshuffled Cabinet would have become clearer, with ministerial minds focusing on a third term whose reforming zeal is underpinned by 45 new Bills.

But, as ever, the trickier issues tend to be obscured by the relief of victory, temporarily shoved to the bottom of the ‘in tray’.

Luckily for the government, turmoil on the Tory benches - as an increasingly isolated Michael Howard tries vainly to hold the line until the new leadership contest - will keep opposition to a minimum this side of a lengthy summer break.

But, come the autumn and the winter, the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister could be the first in line for a sustained assault from the Tories as well as from the Liberal Democrats. As sure as a pre-Budget statement follows the darkening nights, there’s always a fuss over

the annual local government settlement, accompanied by dire warnings of ‘inflation-busting council tax rises’.

But this year will be different because, to take the Local Government Association at its word, there’ll be a collective £1.5bn ‘black hole’ in town hall budgets unless Chancellor Gordon Brown comes up with another rescue package.

Post-election, that’s unlikely. By December, ministers will have to respond to Sir Michael Lyons’ report on alternatives to the council tax. Warnings from Nick Raynsford, the former local government minister, that the tax is unsustainable in its present form, are doubtless still echoing around Deputy Prime Minister John Prescott’s office at 26 Whitehall - and at Eland House, his former HQ half a mile away. Intriguingly to some in the department, this has now been recolonised by David Miliband, the communities and local government minister.

Radical solutions for council financing are needed. Ministers can no longer fudge the issue, with Lyons doubtless highlighting the unfair burden placed on householders, particularly lower-income households, while businesses have progressively paid less over the past 20-odd years.

In short, they have to produce something rather better than a reworked, renamed council tax when revaluation takes effect in 2007.

Then there’s the thorny problem of the direction of the ODPM itself. It would have probably faced dismemberment had David Blunkett taken over the rump of the department. But Prescott dug his heels in.

Instead, Miliband has a much broader brief than Raynsford. Put aside for a moment how two Cabinet ministers from one department, clearly overlapping in some areas, will work together half a mile apart. The ODPM is still - officially at least - proceeding as if the defeat of Prescott’s grand regional project in the Northeast devolution referendum was a mere hiccup. Non-elected assemblies are pressing ahead overseeing regional planning and housing strategies, albeit with growing dissent from Tory members in the Southeast and Eastern regions – and with increasing uncertainty about the stability of those in the Northeast and Northwest.

These are not happy ships. In truth, everything has changed over the past seven months. Some in Whitehall clearly think the regional agenda is time-expired and discredited. There is a new agenda. The ODPM is now commissioning studies on city-regions, with some suggesting that enlarged conurbations might be overseen by a new breed of directly elected mayor.

Miliband, while a fan of these US-style mayors when head of the Downing Street Policy Unit, wants to press for more, although he is unclear what the delivery mechanism might be. He is probably more consumed with ‘community empowerment’ - the mantra is ‘voice and choice’ - although he has yet to spell out the way forward.

But all this is mere tinkering. The wider agenda, to meet the multibillion-pound savings demanded by Sir Peter Gershon’s efficiency review, must surely involve a rationalisation of councils. Many districts are too small, with little capacity and few functions. Ministers must act, forcing smaller councils to co-operate as a first step to merger and wider reorganisation.

The two-tier system, with some exceptions, simply isn’t working. It’s wasteful. It undermines local democracy because people are confused by a division of functions that makes no sense.

By all means, push for stronger levels of community/neighbourhood government where there is demand. But let’s recognise that this must go hand in glove with gradual reorganisation leading to a unitary structure throughout England.

And let’s start at the top. How about rebranding the ODPM to reflect the work it does? Any names gratefully accepted.

Did you enjoy this article?