LGC presents a round-up of what the papers have been making of Eric Pickles’ major announcements for councils. Have your say at the bottom.
The requirement to subject council tax rises to referendums is asymmetric because it does not apply to expenditure cuts. It blurs lines of local accountability, and experience in the routinely cash-strapped state of California – where plebiscitary diktats have impaired fiscal freedom since the 70s – provides an unhappy precedent. Tying town halls’ hands on personal tax sits uncomfortably with parallel promises to give them more of a stake in business taxation. Add in Eric Pickles’ schemes to allow citizens to bypass their local authority on issues like planning, and it becomes evident that, for all his experience as a council leader in Bradford, this communities secretary is not content to leave local politics in the hands of local politicians.
For many Liberal Democrats, who have traditionally argued that the path to decentralisation runs through town halls, this pickled localism no doubt tastes sour. The practicalities of managing a 27% cut in grant funding over the next four years, however, will overwhelm esoteric arguments about the most effective means to delegate power. Councillors will experience any new responsibilities that they are in line for as a passing of the buck for unpopular decisions. They will have a duty to explain where the axe is to fall, but will not be in a position to do anything much to soften the blow.
If there is a progressive case to be made for this government, then it relies upon its instinct to – in Nick Clegg’s – “reach for the sledgehammer” in response to centralised control. It is a serious point, but amid expenditure reductions of such a reckless pace it becomes hard to sustain. The sledgehammer’s swings against the public services are drowning out any blows being landed on the architecture of power.
Governments of every stripe have, for the best part of a century, been engaged in the steady accretion of power to the centre. A tradition of municipal pride and activism that helped transform this country for the better is now largely a distant memory, and we have steadily become one of the most centralised of the major western economies. Have the people benefited? Hardly. Local services have become tired and unresponsive, while the general public has become distant from and uninterested in what happens in their town and city halls.
The Coalition plans to start reversing this trend by cutting red tape and allowing more local control over how money is spent; by ensuring a diversity of supply of public services to encourage competition and cut costs; and by fostering greater transparency – and, with it, more accountability. This is an important step in the direction of Mr Cameron’s Big Society. The proposals are, inevitably, being depicted as little more than a mask for local authority spending reductions, also announced yesterday.
Those cutbacks do not actually warrant some of the apocalyptic language with which they have been greeted. They will be painful – spending cuts always are. But they will take expenditure levels back only to where they were on the eve of the crash. This is less about amounts of money, more about a spending culture built on the expectation of annual budgetary increases, regardless of what is needed.
The [Localism] Bill contains a number of potentially useful measures. There is merit in the idea of giving community organisations the right to buy libraries, village halls, pubs and shops – and the time to raise the money to do that. And it would be good if local people had a greater say in the running of care homes, children’s centres and bus services. But the rest of the Bill suggests that this is window dressing. About 70% of the budget of local councils comes from central government – and that is to be cut by an average of 27% over the next four years.
The claim that this can be achieved without hitting frontline services is either wishful thinking or political deceit. What is really being devolved to local councils is the opprobrium of making detailed cuts in public services. It is hard to disagree with the leader of Liverpool council who said that the Bill would create a lot of new levers for local people but that nothing would happen when they pull them.
There are some deep incoherences at the heart of the plan. Government wants power devolved and yet it wants planning, education or even chief executives shared between local authorities. Even if that does not create super-councils, as critics fear, it certainly takes decisions further from, rather than closer to, the ordinary citizen.
The vicious package of cuts bundled together by the ConDems mean that it will always be known as Misery Monday. Criminals will be celebrating as the thin blue line is further erased by a reckless and dangerous reduction in spending. Disabled people will suffer from the scandalous abolition of the Independent Living Fund. Pupils will pay for a squeeze on schools which will inevitably cost classroom jobs. And essential services for children and the elderly will be on the hit list when councils are forced to live on reduced rations.
Spending must be cut to reduce the deficit, but this package is politically-driven - an ideological lurch to the Thatcherite Right. There’s no justification for this assault on vital public services. People of goodwill in every political party must hold the ConDem austerity coalition to account.
If the Government believes that directly-elected mayors is the way to govern Yorkshire’s cities in the future, then Ministers should submit their plans to a referendum vote straight away. They should not, however, foist this flawed concept on councils before a public vote – now likely to be staged in 2012 – in the hope that voters can be won over by Ministers playing for time. Just look at Doncaster which has become one of the worst performing councils in the country since residents started electing the town’s mayor in 2002.
It’s also disingenuous for Communities Secretary Eric Pickles to cite, in his defence, London and how the mayoral scheme has benefited the city. That maybe so – and the capital certainly needed a more effective means to co-ordinate policies, like transport and policing, across every borough. Yet it is difficult to see how such an approach will benefit individual cities like Leeds, Bradford, Sheffield and Wakefield. Of course, councils need to work together to co-ordinate the region’s economic response to this recession following Yorkshire Forward’s demise.