Being topical is a mixed blessing, but local government is certainly in the news at the moment.
Behind the headlines, it is also the subject of detailed political debate in the lead-up to the next election. Fundamental questions are once again open for discussion – what should locally-elected Councils do, how should they do it, and who should pay for it? Of course, in theory, these questions don’t have to be answered the same way everywhere in the country, that is the point of local government. But let’s not get ahead of ourselves!
This week the Conservatives published Control Shift, their Green Paper on local democracy. For Labour, Hazel Blears described it as “a damp squib”, and made a series of specific criticisms. I have not seen a detailed official response from the Liberal Democrats, but if anyone wants to point me in the right direction, I would be keen to take a look. Julia Goldsworthy, who speaks for the Lib Dems on CLG issues, condemned it for being too similar to Labour policy, and not pledging a reform of council tax.
Both sides have something to be said for them in this debate.
Labour’s first criticism, that the Conservatives would scrap Regional Development Agencies which have ‘helped hundreds of thousands of businesses’ is a bit odd. Firstly because that isn’t what the Tories have proposed – much to the annoyance of their most anti-regionalist members – they merely want to take housing and planning powers away from the regional level, and give them to local Councils, and secondly because they say they want to ‘refocus the RDAs on economic development’. That sounds like more powers to help business, not fewer. I defer to businesspeople on how helpful they think these are in reality, I suspect for some, very much so, for others, less so.
The Labour Party likes regions, that much is clear – John Prescott recently described the failure to bring about elected Regional Assemblies as the greatest regret of his political life. It’s not clear that the public do, and those Councillors who did preferred Assemblies (unelected) on which they sat, which Labour has abolished. So it is unclear who this criticism is intended to win over.
Beyond that, Labour focus on threatened cuts – to an extent a fair comment following Tory proposals for an across the board cut in government budgets, and obviously a concern to those of us who see costs outside our control continuing to go up – but not something raised in this particular document.
There is, however, an inconsistency between the Conservative claim that they plan to abolish capping, and an effective cap of 2.5%, imposed by promising that much funding to any Council achieving a 2.5% rise, enabling them to deliver an actual increase in council tax of 0%. In reality it will be very hard politically for any Council not to participate in this.
That said, much depends on general inflation. If general inflation falls to zero for some time, as Wise Men think it might, Council Tax is close to the limits of public acceptability if not beyond them for many people. Capping is not a long-term solution to high taxes, but raising taxes forever is not a long-term solution to growing budgets either.
Finally, Labour’s criticism tends to echo that of the Liberal Democrats. They claim that a key problem with the document is that it contains much which the Government are already doing – reducing the number of targets, allowing Councils to introduce elected mayors, reducing ringfencing of funding, and so on.
While this is true, some of the Conservative rhetoric goes further, and in any case I am not someone who believes the duty of the Opposition is to oppose, no matter what. It is useful to know what the Conservative Party thinks, even if that turns out to be the same as what the Labour Party thinks, on some issues. There are also proposals which are genuinely different, and which are proper subjects for debate. Scrapping blanket inspections, and focusing them on high-risk areas such as social services; scrapping the Standards Board and investigating alleged wrongdoing locally; freeing Councils up to decide their Trading Standards priorities, so they can take stronger action on those selling booze to kids, and less on those selling fruit and veg in imperial measures.
Overall, a mixed bag, and it is a sad fact of British political life that Oppositions are always more committed to local democracy than Governments, but this is nonetheless a revolution, and a welcome one, in Conservative attitudes to local Councils compared to a decade or two ago – could it be connected to how many of them they now control? Surely not.