Councils of despair

9 Dec 05
PETER HETHERINGTON | Here’s a seasonal teaser to throw into the annual round of Trivial Pursuit, or the other festive games that can enliven an otherwise monotonous family get-together.

Here’s a seasonal teaser to throw into the annual round of Trivial Pursuit, or the other festive games that can enliven an otherwise monotonous family get-together.

One: what’s the name of your local council? Two: what does it do?

Blank expressions all round the fireside? Possibly. While a few might make a good stab at question one, almost all will stumble over number two, especially if they’re unlucky enough to live in one of England’s 34 two-tier shire counties, where service provision is ill-defined and confusing, and (with few exceptions) seamless delivery is a pipe-dream.

But everyone, at least, is sure of one point: next to their mortgage payments, the monthly council tax bill makes a dent in the bank account.

At this time of year, with families either digging deep or recklessly spending on non-essential gifts and goodies, local government briefly assumes importance. People start to take notice. That’s because, after this week’s annual Whitehall settlement for town and county halls in England — giving them an estimated extra £1.1bn for the next financial year — directors of finance will soon be giving council tax projections for 2006/07.

Although ministers have warned authorities that budgets will be capped if increases exceed 5%, councils’ dire warnings of service cuts, along with the annual headlines of ‘inflation-busting town hall tax rises’, have become as seasonal as the holly and the hangover. So is this year any different? Well, yes.

Remember, this week’s Pre-Budget Report should have signalled a firmer financial footing for councils, with Sir Michael Lyons’ review of the council tax originally due to land on ministers’ desks this month. With that review postponed, Lyons has been giving the task of examining the broader function of English councils alongside how they should be financed.

He’ll present his findings — likely to embrace a new constitutional ‘settlement’ formally codifying the powers of central and local government for the first time — in December 2006. But an interim report will be published before then, setting out how the Lyons team will tackle its broader remit.

At the same time, David Miliband, the communities and local government minister, has apparently accepted the case for wider reform by planning to scrap the two-tier structure in counties and thus creating a wholesale unitary system of local government throughout England.

There is talk of a local government white paper as a prelude to legislation, setting out the case for this system — in which some smaller counties could remain intact and larger ones face the axe — alongside a strengthened structure of parish and community governance.

But it’s far from clear how long this might take, still less how it chimes with the broadened Lyons review.

Against this confusing background, authorities have to make do and mend. They stagger on in the knowledge that the whole system of local government finance, tied to the council tax and wedded to 1991 property values (with no sign of revaluation since the government postponed the whole exercise in the summer) is increasingly untenable. People understandably resent paying increases at twice the inflation rate when they perceive that the services they receive are getting worse.

While this government has clearly pumped much more money into education and, to a lesser extent, into social care, the ‘headline’ areas — those identified by the pollsters as voters’ local priorities — are often sadly neglected. On the Treasury’s earlier projections, no increase was planned for highway spending in England over the next financial year, while the funding ‘block’ covering the environment was due to get a miserly 3.5% boost — compared with at least 7% extra for education. For many voters, the result is plain to see as they open their front doors — from pot-holed and collapsing roads and pavements to unkempt public spaces.

Councils either need more freedom to raise money or a handle on the local business rate once again. But they also need to raise their sights. At their best, they can teach Whitehall a few lessons about making efficiency savings, streamlining services and delivering them across the public sector in partnership with others.

At their worst — especially in two-tier areas — they are not only dysfunctional, but also distant and increasingly irrelevant.

But, then, nationally, local government has to raise its sights. The Local Government Association, for instance, is doubtless very successful at lobbying the national government for a better financial settlement and representing its members’ interests. But as a national lobbying group, championing the cause of town and county hall over Whitehall, it’s invisible.

Time, perhaps, for a national campaign making the case for strong local democracy — and telling people what it already provides and why it’s important.

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