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OPINION - PUTTING THE CART BEFORE THE HORSE

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Reform is needed before empowerment can work...
Reform is needed before empowerment can work

Council reorganisation, mayors and the development of city regions may or may not make it into the

final cut of the local government white paper when it eventually arrives.

However one issue, it seems almost certain, will make it in: how can local people be persuaded to start paying

attention to, and getting involved with, the governance of their local area?

From a politician's point of view, empowerment is very attractive as it will help get more people voting.

Councils also have a vested interest, partly because this means services are better attuned to residents' needs. The benefit for local people also seems obvious.

But at what cost? And who will pay?

In these times when pensioners are willing to go to prison to avoid paying council tax, it seems unlikely the costs of setting up projects or funding new 'frontline councillors' to champion local needs can be added to council tax or via additional precepts.

But ministers have already made clear that expenditure cannot be allowed to increase in next year's comprehensive spending review.

This leaves the nightmare of neighbourhood arrangements having to be paid for from existing funding.

Unless, that is, local government makes a strong case for change, that's not the same old argument for more grant money.

Local government instead needs to consistently explain why the cash central government spends is being wasted on bureaucracy such as over-inspection, when councils could better spend it engaging with communities.

Tony Blair recently wrote to Ruth Kelly to say she should make empowering communities her priority, ahead of local government reform. Councils must argue you cannot have the former without the latter.

The truth is that some in Westminster would prefer to bypass councils and direct funds straight to other local bodies which are perceived as less of a threat. The trick is to convince ministers that without local government being at the heart of it, empowerment cannot work.

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