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A balanced debate

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LGC's political editor sat in on a select committee's inquiry into the balance of power between local councils and Whitehall.

With the Committee on Standards in Public Life launching its inquiry into leadership in local government in the morning, the afternoon’s evidence session of the Communities and Local Government select committee offered an opportunity to observe leader/chief executive relationships up close.

Phyllis Starkey’s committee is investigating the balance of power between central and local government. Yesterday saw representatives from Manchester and Birmingham City Councils , Kent CC and Maidstone BC , together with the London Boroughs of Camden and Westminster give evidence. The contrasting styles of city-based leaders and those in the shires was fascinating.

The London borough chief executives sat mostly in silence whilst Camden leader Keith Moffitt (Lib Dem) and, particularly, Westminster’s new leader Colin Barrow (Con) regaled the MPs.

Cllr Moffitt wasted all of three seconds before trumpeting Camden’s achievement of securing a perfect CPA score.

The eloquent Cllr Barrow explained how he would like the power to direct a proportion of the budgets of the Department for Work & Pensions and the local police and health services towards priorities of his authority’s own choosing.

By contrast, Kent leader Paul Carter (Con) very much played second fiddle to his chief executive Peter Gilroy. No Whitehall mandarin appearing next to his minister ever used the word “I” so much as did Mr Gilroy.

When Cllr Carter did make a contribution - speaking authoritatively about the perils of the local government finance system and throwing his weight behind the proposals of his predecessor, the late Lord Bruce Lockhart, for an independent grants commission - it was unfortunately in direct contradiction to the written evidence his council had supplied.

If Ms Starkey took too much pleasure in pointing that fact out, Cllr Carter got his revenge when he was later able to remind her that Hastings was in fact in East Sussex and not Kent.

In substantive terms, the overall feeling was that the MPs were disappointed in the lack of radical ideas. Deputy chairman Clive Betts prompted in vain for appetite for radical overhaul of the finance system.

The council leaders were far too savvy to start mouthing off about how they’d like the power to levy extra taxes from local residents or firms in the current economic climate.

In fact the vision for local government outlined by all the leaders was pretty much that of the Department for Communities & Local Government - councils acting as the first amongst equals in the local public sector through the local area agreement.

Conservative MP Anne Main’s concerns over localism leading to postcode-lotteries and local disparities were batted back with textbook defences from the Lyons coaching manual about the virtues of “managed difference”. And when Cllr Barrow was challenged about the dangers of local electorates making disastrous choices, as in Hackney, he elegantly replied: “It is a philosophical debate to which I can adduce no evidence whatsoever.”

Perhaps there will be more in the way of fireworks when the think-tank wonks take their seats next week.

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