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OPINION - BALANCING THE BOOKS

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One of the vital laws of rhetoric is the law of the comical opposite. Translate a speech by changing all the main t...
One of the vital laws of rhetoric is the law of the comical opposite. Translate a speech by changing all the main terms into their opposites. If the result makes you laugh then the speaker has been talking rubbish. Take the following paragraph, for example: 'We want to see a vibrant local democracy in which councils provide strong leadership to their communities and deliver high quality and improving local services.'

Does anybody want to see a demoralised local democracy in which councils provide weak leadership and deliver low quality and declining local services? Of course not. The words are platitudes and thinking about them in reverse reveals how empty they are.

I do this not to castigate local government minister Nick Raysnford whose words they are. Indeed, sonorous nonsense has been the stock-in-trade of local government ministers as long as I can recall. Every empty speech has the same cause, which none of them have faced up to and that is the balance of funding itself.

One problem is gearing. In principle, the problem could be solved by more centralisation, so that the amount raised locally becomes a trivial amount and the local tax bill ceases to be a vexed issue.

But that would, of course, exacerbate the main problem - the declining appeal and prestige of local government. This is partly about the sheer difficulty of being involved in local politics. Many good people are deterred by the long grind for minimal reward. There are, to be sure, problems with extending the cadre of professional politicians, but properly paid councillors has to be the answer.

But the labour involved is not the main reason councils struggle to recruit or that turnout is so depressingly low. These problems are much simpler. In 1870, after the Goschen report, a new grant system was devised which meant over 90% of money spent locally was raised locally. The local proportion declined steadily to 75% at 1900, where it remained for the next 50 years.

The rot set in after 1945. It was precisely the c entralisation of welfare services that altered the balance of funding. By 1980 the balance was half and half. And then Mrs Thatcher arrived and the local portion fell off a cliff.

It is quite easy to say meaningful things about local government. It is not difficult to set out a way in which local government might indeed be vibrant and in which councils might well provide strong leadership and so on and so forth. But not as long as the proportion of money raised locally continues to decline. Unless that trend is reversed politicians will be condemned to speeches of motherhood, apple-pie and 'vibrant local democracy'.

Phil Collins

Director, Social Market Foundation

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