Having a localist moment

28 Sep 07
PETER RIDDELL | Spot the difference. The autumn conference season is when politicians from the main parties pretend to disagree with each other, but largely say the same things.

Spot the difference. The autumn conference season is when politicians from the main parties pretend to disagree with each other, but largely say the same things.

They all care about public sector professionals and local government, when they are not speculating and worrying about the date of the next general election.

Communities and Local Government Secretary Hazel Blears told this week’s Labour conference in Bournemouth: ‘This is the localist moment in British politics. We need to be the party of devolution, of decentralisation. In short, we need to put power in the hands of the people.’

Hold on, haven’t we heard that before? Go back a week to the Liberal Democrat conference and Andrew Stunell, the party’s local government spokesman, was saying: ‘A new covenant between local and central government is needed to make politics more relevant and responsive to voters.’

It is an absolutely safe prediction that we will hear the same from the Conservatives in Blackpool next week. Leader David Cameron proclaimed earlier this year to the Local Government Association that: ‘I stand before you a convinced localist… A decentralised country, with local people in direct control of the decisions which affect them, is a more free country.’ And Sir Simon Milton, the Conservative chair of the LGA, argued: ‘Where we can improve public services by involving local people and tackling local needs, I also believe we can begin a new movement to reinvigorate our democracy.’

Sounds great, but what does it all mean? A common thread is an acceptance of the limitations and drawbacks of central control and direction. All the parties dance around Sir Michael Lyons’ recommendations. Their solutions vary considerably and do not match the localist rhetoric.

For Labour, it is mainly about giving local authorities greater freedom and control over their existing pots of money. But Blears and John Healey, the influential local government minister, have gone further. They also favour more direct participation by local people, whether on citizens’ juries to discuss local planning, parks or policing issues, or by direct neighbourhood/community control over assets such as village halls, swimming pools and disused buildings. Blears has also proposed greater local accountability for the police and health services.

Similarly, Healey has talked of the need for local government to create a ‘town hall of all the talents’, in which council leaders reach ‘beyond the narrow circles of their own power’ and involve leaders of local groups. He also favours greater powers for councils, both working on their own and in partnership with other councils and the private sector.

The Conservative approach has turned primarily on simplification and deregulation. Hence, the party has proposed abolishing the regional tiers and returning their powers to local councils and scrapping the Standards Board, to remove what the Tories call ‘pointless, vexatious, politically inspired complaints’.

But their main proposal is to phase out ring-fenced grants, so that councils have more flexibility to direct funds to where local people want them spent. The Tories have criticised the practice of governments transferring unfunded cost burdens on to councils.

These proposals have enabled Cameron to claim that, while Gordon Brown’s government was intending to give people a little bit of power to spend a little bit of money, the Conservatives would give people a lot of power to spend a lot of money. The aim, of course, is to hold down the level of council tax payments.

Both the Labour and Conservative approaches are essentially about making the current system work better by giving local authorities more freedom, particularly to spend. But neither party envisages a substantial change in councils’ dependence on central government for the bulk of their money. Like Lyons, they both edge around the big elephant of council tax.

Only the party least likely to form a government has talked about a wholesale restructuring of local finance. The LibDems’ conference approved not only devolution from the centre and greater involvement of local residents in decision-making, but also, crucially, increasing the proportion of council funding that can be raised locally. The longer-term aim is 75% of total revenue, as opposed to 25% at present. That, of course, depends on replacing council tax with a local income tax.

Yet, if the future under either a Brown or a Cameron government is a slightly more decentralised form of what we have become used to, there is at least now an increasing recognition of the central role of local government in achieving national goals. As Milton recently pointed out, councils are already the means by which the vast majority of contact occurs between the citizen and the state, and are vital for dealing with housing problems and gang culture.

Quite. But the centre, and especially the Treasury, whether under a Tory or Labour administration, is always reluctant to surrender control.

Did you enjoy this article?