An influential panel of MPs has slammed local government, labelling the sector “timid” and criticising the Local Government Association for not being pro-active enough.
A Commons communities & local government select committee report calls for a “wholesale cultural change” across central government and the media as part of a transfer of power from Whitehall to local areas.
However, special criticism was reserved for councils. The committee claimed it was “disappointed to note that local government has become so used to existing in a culture of central control that the ambition to take on powers and responsibilities from central government is sometimes limited and even timid”.
The LGA meanwhile must “keep testing the boundaries” of what can be achieved in the current legislative framework.
Speaking to LGC, committee chairman Dr Phyllis Starkey said she had been “disappointed” with the level of ambition on display from some of those who submitted evidence to the inquiry.
“It’s not simply that central government is seeking to control local government but that the sector as a generality lacks ambition,” she said.
In particular, the report criticised the signing of the central-local concordat in 2007 after which “nothing much appears to have changed” despite the LGA heralding it as “ground-breaking”.
In evidence to the inquiry, Professor John Stewart of the University of Birmingham, claimed the LGA had “gone too far in accepting the views of central government”, and had let itself be “browbeaten”into signing the concordat.
Andy Sawford, chief executive of the Local Government Information Unit thinktank, said the report would make hard reading for the LGA.
“The LGA must accept that over the past decade, local government hasn’t provided enough of a challenge and that in some cases the national leadership got it wrong,” he said, adding that signing the concordat had provided the government with “a fig-leaf for increasing the power of central government”.
Westminster City Council leader Colin Barrow (Con), who gave evidence to the inquiry, claimed local government had for years “adopted a position of craven supplication” to central government.
Paul Raynes, who lead the LGA’s work on the concordat, welcomed the reports findings and defended the organisation’s track record in challenging central government.
“There are a string of things we have been calling for, from a power of general competence through to cultural change, all of which the committee is strongly supporting,” he said. “If there have ever been times in the past that the LGA has been guilty of projecting an insufficiently challenging message to government, the report itself shows it is now making that challenge.”
Despite the criticisms of the sector, the report states local authorities are “best placed to make tough decisions about priorities and get the best possible outcomes from the finite resources available.
The committee recommended the introduction of local supplementary income tax to run alongside council tax, and the return of the business rate to local control.
Councils should also be given responsibility for commissioning health and police services locally with projects piloted in areas with matching police, health and council boundaries.
The report also criticises the Department for Communities & Local Government, claiming “it is not as far down the road to a devolutionary programme as the rhetoric might suggest”.