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FEATURES - 'I WANT COUNCILS TO HAVE MORE POWER'

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Liberal Democrat leader Sir Menzies Campbell talks to Nick Golding about power, ownership -- and Labour jumping on ...
Liberal Democrat leader Sir Menzies Campbell talks to Nick Golding about power, ownership -- and Labour jumping on the Lib Dems' localist bandwagon

The Liberal Democrats have long promised councils devolution and freedom - together with sugar and spice and all platitudes nice, cynics might suggest.

For decades, their not-so-nice opponents endorsed the slugs and snails and puppy dog tails of centralisation. Parties either in government, or likely to form the next government, decided it was in their interest to hold power at the centre.

But these days it appears sugar and spice is also what little Tories and little Labour types are made of.

Under David Cameron the Tories have undergone an apparent Damascene conversion to the wonders of localism.

Meanwhile, after years of control through inspection and now capping, Labour claims to have seen the light on devolution to councils and neighbourhood empowerment.

So has the Liberal Democrats' cause célèbre been hijacked?

In an exclusive interview with LGC, the party's new leader Sir Menzies Campbell says the others have done little more than jump on a localist bandwagon.

'[Labour] talks about double devolution, a wholly undefined concept, and the Conservative party certainly talks about localism but there's very little flesh on the bones yet,' he scoffs.

'Localism is just one of these buzzwords. We've got to make sure we set out in clear and unequivocal detail what it means.'

And the Lib Dems will apparently waste little time in revealing the detail.

'One of the things I've challenged the party to do - we've got some policy work on this which will appear at the September party conference - is to put bones on this area. It will mean local people having an influence through their councils over the sort of services which are provided.'

We may not discover until the autumn exactly what such aspirations amount to but it is clear Sir Menzies considers himself fully signed up to devolution.

'I have been a devolutionist ever since I became interested in politics, principally for home rule in Scotland, and we now have a Scottish parliament. If I had known what the word localism meant then I'd have been in favour of it - that's my creed.

'It is essential we give people back the ownership of their government. We talk here grandly in the House of Commons but a lot of the things that are most significant to people's lives are the decisions which are being made by their local authority.'

Local government critics of national policy have expressed concern that councils might actually lose power under double devolution. Councils could effectively be bypassed as power is transferred to neighbourhoods.

However, Sir Menzies insists it is the empowerment of councils that he favours.

'I want councils to have much more power,' he exclaims. 'I want them to raise more of the money they spend locally and get less of it from central government.'

Sir Menzies calls upon his party to look at the 'whole question of general competence', suggesting central government is no more capable of governing successfully than individual councils.

Perhaps appropriately for the oldest party leader, he wistfully harks back to a different age. 'I just compare and contrast local authorities in this century with the 19th century, when there was an enormous amount of self confidence and civic pride and determination to do better for the community. We want to get back to those principles in a modern setting.'

Would this modern setting involve a sweeping away of two-tier councils and their replacement with unitaries, surely the best means of ensuring voters understand who runs local affairs?

Sir Menzies is clearly unimpressed by restructuring and begins countering the argument: 'I don't know if that's necessarily '

He then tails off into a coughing fit, but soon emerges with the red-faced zeal of reform.

'I'll tell you what would provide more accountability - that would be the single transferable vote!'

He goes on to heap praise on the single transferable vote system, to be used in next year's Scottish council elections, in which voters rank candidates rather than putting a simple X beside their name. Under the system, voters' second or third choices will be taken into account if their first choice fails to get elected.

'STV is the way to revive local government because, just as it would for Westminster, it demonstrates there's no such thing as a wasted vote.'

He neglects to mention that with most Labour and Conservative voters traditionally considering the Liberal Democrats their second preference party, STV could also be the way to further revive his party's fortunes.

Health priorities, he states, should be set in a 'different way' to mainstream council activities. Sir Menzies says his party has been 'pretty antagonistic' to the home secretary's police force merger proposals, which he says will lessen the connection between communities and the services they are provided.

And, on the question of education, he has a decidedly traditionalist outlook on local accountability over schools, as the disagreements over the Education & Inspections Bill rumble on.

Somewhat surprisingly he states: 'My concern is that councils should continue to be providers [of services] - I do not believe that they should be reduced to the ranks simply of commissioners.'

Criticising the concept of independently-run trust schools, he continues: 'I do not want the influence of commercial companies with large sums of money who suddenly have an attack of conscience, deciding they want to establish a school, because commercial companies change their priorities.

'Who's to say in 10 years that the board of a company involved may take a different view and may want to offload a school to someone else? Councils provide continuity and democratic accountability.'

He might want to see councils given greater powers over education, but on green issues it seems Sir Menzies is not so willing for them to determine the way forward.

The party leader spoke to LGC after telling the party's most senior figures in a speech that their councils must become more environmentally friendly. It is put to Sir Menzies that any party genuinely committed to decentralisation would leave it to the councils themselves to make that choice.

'I was challenging them. I was telling them what I thought,' Sir Menzies insists. 'If they don't like it they'll shout 'rubbish'. But, unlike in the Labour party, they won't be arrested under terrorism legislation for shouting 'rubbish' at the platform.'

Sir Menzies might have avoided hecklers so far, but it appears he is not entirely confident that his party is placid.

Insisting he will not get into policy details so soon in his leadership, he states: 'I'm not going to write for you today a policy document - that work is ongoing. Indeed, if a leader tries to prescribe policy in our party he gets his throat cut.'

But he does give an indication of the Lib Dem finance policy which is being determined by a tax commission established by his predecessor Charles Kennedy.

The party has long advocated a local income tax but its right-wingers have increasingly put pressure on the leadership to reduce the burden on higher earners.

Sir Menzies appears content with his party's present policy: 'I'm committed to the principle that local taxation should be based on the ability to pay, just as national taxation is.'

When asked to clarify whether the local income tax policy would be retained, he states: 'I would be surprised if it didn't, but I have to make it clear in our party the leader doesn't make the policy.'

Individual members will not be given such a big say on the party's actions in the event of a hung parliament.

With David Cameron expected to run Labour closer than in 2005, the Liberal Democrats stand a realistic chance of being kingmakers.

So, would a genuine commitment to devolution be a precondition of the Lib Dems entering a coalition government?

Sir Menzies remains tight lipped: 'I've banished the words 'hung parliament' from the Liberal Democrat

dictionary between now and the general election and that will continue to be my position.'

Only when the Liberal Democrats gain power can one determine what they stand for. At a local level, they now have 70 council leaders with an opportunity to translate warm words into policy.

Nationally, it may only be if the electoral arithmetic results in a hung parliament that Sir Menzies is able to prove the commitments to council freedom amount to more than platitudes.

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