Funny old world…

I thought this was interesting;

In all, the report says, such precautionary measures would halve the ill-effects of the moderate amount of warming that might be expected if governments took urgent steps to reduce emissions (at higher temperatures such adaptation will be much harder if not impossible). But so far little is being done. It found that only seven per cent of local authorities had plans to cope with climate change – and none had begun to implement them…

Which would be a wholly unsurprising criticism, were it not from The Daily Telegraph. A great newspaper with excellent UK news coverage and probably the best sports section of any broadsheet, if a little bit eccentric in its choice of columnists, commentators and, occasionally, owners. Not, however, noted for being entirely supportive when local authorities engage staff to work on planning for, and mitigating, the effects of climate change.

Say no to Councillor on Councillor violence

Goodness, the Standards Board has not even been properly abolished yet, and already Councillors from the same party are turning on one another. Councillor Jean-Paul Floru (Westminster) has been driven to the brink of financial ruin by the amount of Council Tax he has been required to pay on his spare houses in Kent.

So upset has this made him, he’s written for the Taxpayers’ Alliance to condemn the garden of England and others for having a controlling group who are “Conservative in name only”, and challenging those around the country to make the same savings as have been achieved in Westminster.

I’m all for lower Council tax (we don’t get a staff discount, you know), but there are moments in political life when one might think, from a comfortable distance, that a pause for reflection and a period of silence might be wise. This is particuarly true when there is a risk of claiming that one has achieved by struggle that which has in fact been gained by luck.

For while it is true (I shall use 2008-9 figures, they were the most conveniently available to me) that Westminster charges an average Council tax of only £203 per head, as against £437 in the Dover area (£382 for Kent County and £55 for Dover District), that is not the whole story. It turns out that net Council spending in that year was £1008 per head in Westminster, and only £760 in Dover (£610 for the County, £150 for the District).

So there we have it, Westminster are in fact splurging fully a third more of other people’s money into the hands of scroung… I’m sorry, I’ve been reading the TPA website too long and turned into the Daily Express. In any event, while I’m sure many wise political and managerial decisions have been made in Westminster, one might look more to the fact that the national redistribution of business rates delivers £653 per resident to Westminster, and only £245 per head to Dover, as at least part of the explanation.

Here’s a graph. I like graphs.Lovely graph

A rather different perspective. Apologies to long-term readers who will have seen a similarly-themed rant from me on a previous occasion. Newer readers who have enjoyed this post may be interested in that one too.

All a bit puzzling

It makes my life easier if the Government abides by a consistent set of principles. When Members ask me what they Government’s doing, or likely to do, I can sort of guess. They don’t have to be ideological principles, they don’t necessarily have to be sensible or coherent. Just something. Obviously that’s harder with a coalition, and obviously when theory meets reality, things fray around the edges.

I get that localism will run into its limits when Councils are doing something that a Minister can get some brownie points on the right for attacking (having a newspaper, paying the going rate for a Chief Executive, paying a lobbyist for advice on how to influence the Government), and that’s fair enough. I get that a passionate commitment to spending cuts in general will fall by the wayside when specific cuts need to be made in Ministers’ constituencies. That’s the game.

What I don’t get, is pretend principles. If you think something is a good idea in a specific case, do it. If you don’t, don’t do it. But don’t invent an overarching principle to justify it if you don’t in fact hold to such a principle. Which is a roundabout way to say that I have been wound up today by trying to reconcile the following.

The Government believes policy advice should be carried out by Departments, not arms length bodies, which makes one wonder what the Office for Budget Responsibility is, since to produce the fiscal numbers that underpin government policy one must assume a certain influence over that policy is inherent in the numbers one produces, but also the Government believes that to provide assurance that the Regional Growth Fund is being put to best use, it is necessary to establish an Independent Approval Panel to advise Ministers on allocations of the Fund.

I suppose it’s potentially a squareable circle, if you separate the policy process rigidly into analysis of the facts (independent), operational decision making (independent) and pure policy decisions (Ministerial/Departmental) – in which case the CRC’s failing was to be set up with an advocate rôle, as well as an evidence-gathering and “rural watchdog” function – its reports not only stated the facts, they made suggestions as to how improvements could be made, and they made them in public.

Of course, deparmental civil servants will also advise Ministers, the only real difference is that they will be more ‘realistic’, more bound into prevailing Government thinking, and, oh, we won’t necessarily find out what they said. Which I suppose I can live with, though it doesn’t seem very ‘open source’. Nor does it help me look wise in front of Members. I could encourage them to spend more time with their MPs, I suppose…

Can you bribe people with their own money?

A libertarian (which I’m not) would argue that Government does this all the time, but more seriously… Remember the proposals made by the Conservatives pre-election, that while housebuilding targets would be scaled back, local areas would be encouraged to build more thanks to the Government matching Council Tax revenue for four years from any new properties, plus 25% extra for social/affordable housing? So far so good.

Two problems (well, lots of problems, but two which I think are worth talking about outside of tedious meetings).

  • We’re due a consultation on how exactly this will work, sometime between September and November, presumably for implementation from April 2011. Unless it’s retrospective, this creates a perverse incentive not to allow any building at the moment, in order to push the maximum into the time when it atracts cash. Cynical, but when every penny counts, perhaps necessary. Expect a consultation full of special pleading; “We can’t build, we’re already full”, “We built lots in the last five years”, “Most of our authority is a National Park”, that sort of thing – and probably an almighty scrap in shire England over who exactly gets the money in two-tier areas – the planning authority (District) or the authority that actually delivers the most expensive of the services the new residents will need (County).
  • The money is, by all accounts, going to be “topsliced”. In other words, there will be no new Central Government funding, but rather every Council’s grant will be reduced by a fixed percentage in order to provide the funds which will then be parcelled back out according to build-rate. Now, there is absolutely a problem with out-of-date population figures which means that funding lags growth, but that sort of technical change to funding strikes me as a long way from the political rhetoric which lay behind the original proposals. I’m willing to be told I’m wrong, but that’s the steer I’m getting, and I think it’s frankly a bit dishonest. Apparently Grant Shapps was saying this all along, but I don’t think Caroline Spelman was – when she said “So we will match from the centre the council tax on all new housing for six years, and for affordable housing match it to the tune of 125%“, I think a reasonable listener could have assumed that “from the centre” meant just that, not “by clawing back existing funding and redistributing it”.

I notice I’ve managed to get myself onto a list of “Coalition Watching” blogs. I think that’s technically true, I’m spending a lot of my time watching the Coalition. While I’m sure it’s obvious what my views are a lot of the time, I don’t aim to be unduly partisan here, so for balance, let me endorse the following quote from the Secretary of State;

“The government offices are not voices of the region in Whitehall. They have become agents of Whitehall to intervene and interfere in localities.”

Regions aren’t local, and people portraying the above as an attack on localism miss the point. Government Offices have had good and helpful people in them, and they’ve had useless and obstructive people in them, but what they have above all been is aware that their paymasters were in Whitehall, not in the localities within each region. I can’t think that any of the good and helpful people would not be able to achieve more in a local authority than they could in a Regional Office.

How the Sunday Express turned £150 into £10

Or vice versa…

The Taxpayers’ (which ones?) Alliance  quote the Sunday Express, as follows:

The Local Government Association risked the coalition’s fury this month by recommending a 2.3 per cent rise in expenses while local services are slashed and employees’ pay is frozen. The association, which is exempt from the Freedom Of Information Act, has refused to publish details of councillors’ perks in “the current climate”…. A 2.3 per cent rise would bring the average daily allowance for councillors from £149.34 to £152.77.

A great story, with just two crucial flaws. The first is that it isn’t a recommendation, and the second that that isn’t the average daily allowance. Anyone in local government would immediately recognise that, since extrapolating to an annual sum would give a number which is earned by few Council leaders, let alone ordinary Councillors.

What the Sunday Express appear to have latched onto is the “day rate”.  In fairness to them, they seem to have cribbed it from a spectacularly disingenuous Government press release which fails to make clear that that “day rate” is simply a statistical measure of average pay in the country, from the Annual Survey of Hours and Earnings. It most certainly does not translate into “the average daily allowance”. 

Take for example this report (pdf) from Wellingborough Council.  Councillors’ allowances there are reached by taking the day rate referred to above, and applying it to a presumed 47 days a year (any Councillor who manages their job in so little time is almost certainly doing it wrong) and then dividing it in two again to account for local government being seen as “partly voluntary”. The result being that rather than the £150 a day quoted, being a Wellingborough Councillor in fact earns one, over the course of the year, the princely sum of £9.20 a day. A large unitary or county council would pay more, but not 16 times more.

Almost as impressive as the time here when the local newspaper reported that Councillors had voted to quadruple their allowances. It was gently pointed out to them that they had in fact compared two columns in a spreadsheet, one of which was a quarterly outturn, and one of which was an annual projection. Oh well, I guess they’ll have more time to check their facts when they don’t have a Council freesheet to outcompete. Not sure what will cure The Express, though. National politicians who aren’t pulling cheap stunts to distract attention from themselves, maybe. Some hope!

Then he went and spoiled it all…

Courtesy of the lovely folk at the New Local Government Network, I got to hear one of the new local government Ministers, Grant Shapps MP, speaking earlier this week. He said a number of welcome and interesting things about reducing the extent to which Whitehall gets in the way of Councils doing sensible things on the ground. He also said that the financial climate would be horrendous and local government would be in no way insulated from that, in fact quite the opposite. We’d kind of guessed that.

Then he said that what the private sector does, and he thinks we should learn from this, is to do more for less, and be more efficient. The man’s clearly some sort of organisational genius, I mean I personally had never thought of that. I don’t know about any of you. Less money, but the same broad outcomes? Apparently it’s what they do at Sainsbury’s. They don’t say “Good food costs more at Sainsbury’s”. I’m not sure what he thinks local government’s advertising slogan would be, something like “reassuringly expensive”?

Google knows the truth.

A sudden lack of clarity

The Coalition Programme for Government was fairly clear, and Conservatives (and frankly a lot of other people in local government) were jubilant. “We will rapidly abolish Regional Spatial Strategies and return decision-making powers on housing and planning to local councils”. Indeed so it proved, with the cart running down the hill so quickly it got ahead of the horse, and the strategic regional planning structure was abolished administratively before the requirements to abide by it could be removed from statute. Not a big deal, one for the lawyers if anyone cares enough, perhaps.

Then what of Regional Development Agencies? Conservative policy was somewhat muddled before the election, reflecting an apparent support for them by the Ken Clarke faction which was not shared elsewhere. This may mirror, or be a proxy for, residual differences on the European question, regions being the preferred shape of the EU for dealing with its member states’ economic programmes. Indeed that, rather than them just not being a very sensible size or shape for most policymaking, could even be the root of much Conservative objection to them.

So the policy was, we all thought, clarified. RDAs would be abolished, and Councils would be invited, sometime last week, to make a proposal for what would replace them. That could be on any geographic scale, including – if Councils in a region wished it – retaining something regionally shaped. Last week came and went, and no letter arrived. Then a new timetable was set out – it would be this week. This week has almost gone and, as far as anyone knew when I last asked, no letter had arrived.

Today, though, Regional Leaders’ Boards were abolished. Or, at least, had their funding withdrawn by Government. This seems a little previous, since in some regions they may be the core of what will replace the RDA, but never mind. The rumour is that only frantic lobbying from local government left them with enough funding to pay their redundancy costs, it’s all very odd.

Eric Pickles puts his best face on – “This is another step in wresting control from the bureaucrats, stopping the top down diktats and axing unelected, ineffective quangos. This is the nail in the coffin of the unelected, unaccountable and unwanted Regional Assemblies”. Well, fair enough, but not all of his grassroots activists are convinced (see comments) these are arguable the least undemocratic part of the regional architecture – as were the Assemblies beforehand. If you want to achieve what he purports to want to achieve, the RDAs need to go as well, and so, in all probability, do a large chunk of the functions of the Government Offices for the Regions.

Are the RDAs living to fight another day thanks to their friends in high places, the political space they occupy, or the convenient research on themselves they have commissioned? Perhaps. It could be that the sainted letter will be on my desk when I return to the office, or it could be that – as informed gossip implied today – the Lib Dems (supporters in principle, let’s remember, of resolving the ‘West Lothian Question’ by building a federal UK in which the English Regions have the same status as the Celtic nations) have decided the whole issue should be the subject of a late Summer White Paper and an Autumn consultation.

There go my fears that I wouldn’t have enough to do under the coalition…