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The issue of improved public services has been identified as paramount by all three political parties during the co...
The issue of improved public services has been identified as paramount by all three political parties during the conference season this year, but it may not all be good news for local government.

Public services are to be an integral part of each party's campaign in the run-up to the next general election although, beneath the rhetoric, there are serious differences on approaches to improving them.

Perhaps the most significant move to-wards valuing public services was the

Conservative Party's attempts to redefine itself as a less 'nasty' organisation than the one famous for making swingeing cuts.

Shadow local government minister

Theresa May told delegates: 'Politics is about public service. Everything we do should be motivated by one goal - improving the lives of our fellow citizens.'

However, this new caring Conservatism involves moving towards a far greater reliance on private provision of services and this may not be welcomed by everyone in local government.

Labour is equally bullish in its determination to tackle public services, but again this may not mean councils can decide how best to improve them themselves.

Prime minister Tony Blair says he expects the government to be judged on its performance in delivering better public services.

The 2001 Labour Party manifesto says: 'In all our public services, the key is to devolve and decentralise power to give freedom to front-line staff who perform well, and to change things where there are problems.'

This statement outlines a vague commitment to devolving powers from Whitehall, which is negated by an insistence that the private sector should be increasingly involved in delivering public services.

Leader of the Greater London Group at the London School of Economics Tony Travers says the localism touted by all three parties during the conferences is part of the break-up of the large public sector baronies.

But he adds: 'Quite a lot of what is emerging boils down to a vague sense that everything in the country cannot be run from a desk in Whitehall. However, politicians' awareness of this is something akin to an amoeba's awareness of the sun.'

The Labour Party conference, which sported the slogan 'schools and hospitals first', acknowledged the health service and education system cannot be run from Whitehall. But new localism does not mean the government is willing to give up control and despite any number of references to 'earned autonomy' the threat of control from Whitehall remains.

It is a mistake to link announcements about greater freedoms and flexibilities and statements about greater localism, says Mr Travers.

Battles are being fought in local government over the standard spending assessment, which is due to be overhauled in time for the 2003 spending settlement. But whatever happens, central control is set to rise over the next few years as the use of private finance initiatives increases.

The total spend on PFI has risen from around£75m in 1997-98 to almost£700m in 2001-02. This isexpected to double next year and rise to£2.7bn by 2005-06.

At the Labour Party conference, Mr Blair and chancellor Gordon Brown refused to compromise over private involvement in public services.

So while the government talks about the new localism, central control is set to increase rapidly and there is little sign of devolution to local government.

The Liberal Democrats are keen to assert their commitment to improving public services and offer the most localised of the three approaches, even mooting the idea of local tax-raising powers at their conference.

LSE professor of government George Jones sees local tax raising powers as the key to real autonomy for councils.

He says: 'New localism is a major development. It contrasts dramatically with the new centralism we have seen so far under Blair, which intensified centralism under Thatcher and Major.

'But there is no real sign they will give up taxation powers, so local government will not be truly accountable. This ensures that local authorities remain dependent on central government grant.

'At the conference, [deputy prime minister] John Prescott also said he is going to press ahead with regional assemblies, which will suck up power from local government. Earned autonomy also hinders local government because it means local authorities are not being driven by local voters. I welcome the change in rhetoric and the move towards localism but, to constrain Whitehall, you have to build the town hall.'

Mr Prescott made clear his intentions when he told delegates: 'The task now is to bring regional government to England, something I have fought for all my political life. I am delighted to be the minister that will see it implemented.'

Executive director of the Institute of Local Government Studies Sir Michael Lyons expressed concern over what directly elected regional assemblies would mean for local government.

He says: 'There is a plethora of agencies at the moment, but I don't think the regional debate is the answer. The experience in Europe shows that government needs to take place at a number of tiers.'

The Liberal Democrat conference was geared towards convincing people that Labour is not the only party committed to investment in public services. The party is more willing to loosen the reins on local providers, possibly because Liberal Democrat power is strongest at the local level.

The party raised other policies at its conference, which will be popular in local government. Liverpool City Council leader Richard Kemp (Lib Dem) cornered Audit Commission controller Sir Andrew Foster into agreeing to comprehensive performance assessments for the commission.

Sir Michael says: 'If we look at the whole picture after the conferences, it is quite healthy. Improvement of public services is important and all three parties are frustrated by current arrangements. No party has a coherent picture about how this is going to be achieved but there is a growing acknowledgement that more money is needed.'

The recognition that public services are paramount and more money is needed can only be good for local government, but it will be important to make sure councils are at the centre of the continuing policy debates.

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