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FEATURES - POWER PLAY

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The recent capping decision shows the real power balance in the relationship between local and national government...
The recent capping decision shows the real power balance in the relationship between local and national government

If you have power, the temptation must be to use it. To show restraint is a sign of considerable maturity and as such is difficult for individuals and for many organisations. So it is with the government's decision to cap a few councils. This temptation must have been very powerful, but I wonder whether people have really stopped to think how damaging this is, not merely to the councils which are capped, but to the relationship between councils, Whitehall and Westminster. Ultimately it could be damaging for the government itself since it gives a lie to who is ultimately responsible for council tax levels.

The difficulty is that ministers have proven to any members of the electorate who may have thought about it, that it is central government that is responsible for the levels of local tax not local government. Effectively we now have a situation where councillors are voting for an advisory tax increase with the final decision moving to the secretary of state to decide whether that level is acceptable or not. Ultimately voters will blame the government for what they perceive to be higher levels of taxation not linked to higher levels of service.

For councils it is bad enough trying to establish a partnership approach with someone whom you know not to be your equal in power or authority. It is very difficult to maintain this relationship when that superior force persists in using their strength over you.

It is ironic not least because many people in the current government fought side by side with councils against capping when it was introduced by the Conservatives in 1984. They did so on the grounds that this was a genuine threat to democracy and an undermining force, yet here 20 years later it is still being used as a stick with which to beat council.

This is not to deny the real politics of what has gone on. Local government minister Nick Raynsford has probably done more than any other individual to try and establish a genuine working relationship between the corridors of power in Whitehall and councils. But even he was forced to respond to what was perceived as public pressure to do something about high taxation.

As the various efficiency reviews progress we will no doubt hear talk of a further nationalisation of local authority taxation. The alleged logic is that it would make sense to give over tax collection to a national agency and thus make economies of scale, rather than have all of these small councils collecting their own tax. Quite apart from whether you believe the government is competent to deliver such a service, this must be viewed not merely as an efficiency measure but as something with major political consequences. While technically councils would not lose their tax raising powers, practically if the rates are set in Whitehall and the money is collected by a Whitehall appointed agency what would the difference be to the customer or citizen? They would perceive this as another central government tax.

This would be a nationalisation of local services by the back door as far as most people were concerned. Sadly the central/local partnership would start to resemble the arrangements of the black widow spider where, after a ritual courtship and consummation, one partner simply eats the other. It would be a shame if this happened almost by accident, without anyone having thought through the long-term consequences.

David Clark

Director general, SOLACE

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