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Radicalism should be for the many, not for the few

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Commentary on Westminster City Council’s plans to curb super-homes and make the rich pay more

Politics is polarised like never before. The previously unthinkable is the new norm and the old paradigm is dead.

With mathematicians shrugging their shoulders when asked how Theresa May can get the numbers to survive any longer than the next couple of weeks, Brexiteers could be on the cusp of taking the Conservative party to the extreme of an ultra-small state and bilateralism. Meanwhile, the far left has already won control of Labour’s national leadership.

The centre ground is living a clandestine existence, kept alive by a motley crew with disparate political histories and generally unrepresented by any popular party (sorry, Sir Vince). The concept of guerrilla centrism didn’t really need to be invented, until now.

It remains to be seen how the new movements on the left and right will actually translate into workable programmes for government. The last Labour manifesto contained much to revitalise the state (in a 1983 sort of way) but it won’t only be John McDonnell wargaming a run on the pound if the shadow chancellor’s party wins power. For the right, it might be pretty easy to smash stuff up, in the case of the public sector this decade (cheers Mr Osborne) or international institutions and Obamacare (if you’re Donald Trump), but harder to build something positive to replace it. It has yet to be proven that a small state can bring about a reversal to declining living standards (LGC notes dryly).

While there has been some excitement about Haringey LBC’s new Momentum-influenced leadership, in the same way as there was about Barnet LBC’s ‘easy-council’ commissioning model a few years previously, it is probably fair to say that English local government hasn’t generally been in the vanguard of the new movements of the left and right, even if it does have a huge ability to innovate on individual services, as demonstrated by LGC’s Idea Exchange.

However, the sector does boast political creativity. Wigan MBC’s The Deal, Preston City Council’s place leadership model and Sevenoaks DC’s ‘profit with purpose’ commercialism are all examples of pragmatic radicalism, if this is not a contradiction in terms. They’re all successful examples of councils building an overall model which seeks to ensure local services flourish despite the system, rather than seeks to overthrow the system.

One can advance a few theories why English local government is not generally in the midst of the new radical fervour. There’s the defenestration of councils; the age profile of councillors and the common sense of officers and members who are used to working with whatever forces prevail nationally to pragmatically ensure the best for their local population. In short there hasn’t been much room for local government to be ideological. Any wise ideologue might as well base themselves in an arena which isn’t starved of power and money.

As has been the case since the abolition of the poll tax nearly 30 years ago, the issue of local government finance is proving resistant to radicalism. Services are teetering on the edge of collapse – or collapsing – but there is startlingly little debate at a national level about how council finance can be put on a sustainable footing. Generally, only sticking plaster solutions are offered, just to tide councils (and local electorates) over for another few months. We must hope the recommendations of Tony Travers’ London Finance Commission, including allowing the capital to keep a proportion of income tax and VAT yield, and giving the city control of property taxes, are not forgotten. The current culture of requiring the permission of the centre does not facilitate local creativity.

OK, the government is on a course to increasingly localise business rates but – despite Ministry of Housing, Communities & Local Government permanent secretary Melanie Dawes’ enthusiasm for the stability of the tax – LGC would argue it is a 20th century tax struggling to adapt to the digital era. There was some recognition of this in the Budget last month when chancellor Philip Hammond announced a digital services tax, focused on “established tech giants”. However, the proposed £400m annual take should not cause Amazon, Facebook and Uber too much concern, especially when our stricken high street businesses (the ones which don’t move vast sums of money between different international jurisdictions in pursuit of tax efficiency) are facing the full force of business rates.

Depressingly few councils feel in a position to be radical, for instance by holding referendums to increase council tax beyond government-permitted levels. Or by using taxation or charges as a tool to change behaviours, for instance by reducing car use, or to ensure a city’s services are not stifled by high numbers of tourists. Edinburgh City Council is in the midst of a consultation on a tourist tax, expected to add £2 per hotel room per night to hotel bills to “secure future investment in the tourism industry and, in order to support the council to manage the impact of that success upon our services”, but why only Edinburgh? Nottingham City Council’s workplace parking levy has not been widely replicated.

Westminster City Council has lately announced a couple of ideas which, whilst firmly in the tradition of pragmatic responses to current problems, constitute fairly radical interjections in our hamstrung local government sector. In an LGC interview published on Friday, the council’s chief executive Stuart Love discussed how the council sought freedom to levy higher council tax increases on the most valuable homes. This follows on from the council’s voluntary contribution scheme in which the wealthy were asked to choose to contribute more to support services.

And yesterday Westminster published its City Plan, providing a strategy for how it can remain liveable in the period up to 2040. The plan included restrictions on new housing of move than 150 square metres, cracking down on super-size houses for the global elite. The plan stated: “This is because Westminster’s position in the global housing market can create demand for super-size properties which under-optimise development of Westminster’s scarce land resource.”

It shouldn’t be beyond a council to, when it sees its population struggling with the high cost of living and scarcity of housing, to place a greater tax burden on its wealthiest residents or to curb their excesses. Westminster’s proposals are certainly modest when it comes to redistributing wealth or resources – but they are a small step in the right direction. We must hope that this extremely well-connected council can convince ministers to grant it (and other authorities) a little bit of enhanced council tax freedom.

Of course, places don’t get much wealthier than Westminster, despite its significant pockets of poverty. Radicalism shouldn’t be confined to an area which benefits from such a huge business community or which can afford to levy such a low council tax (Band D of £711). In short, radicalism should be for the many, not for the few.

While local government benefits from its paucity of ideologues, it needs space and the boldness to be radical. As the world changes rapidly around councils, they must be sufficiently free-thinking and unencumbered to devise the necessary solutions to their area’s greatest problems.

Nick Golding, editor

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