The formation of the Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition shows that radical reform of local government is no longer an impossibility
Last week, this column said that efforts made by the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats to put together a government “was hardly a brilliant advert for coalitions or a ‘new progressive politics’”. In reality, what took place between the article being written on Tuesday and the completion of the Con-Lib Dem coalition on Wednesday meant an agreement was made amazingly quickly, at least by the standards of other European countries.
People used to think coalitions could never happen in Britain, but one has
The new government is a radical change, make no mistake. If the coalition survives it will suggest that joint working between parties at the national level is not as difficult as had been thought. Of course, in local government such arrangements have long been delivered.
Now the Con-Lib Dem government has taken office it deserves to be judged on its performance. Communities secretary Eric Pickles has been leader of a major local authority, which is a step in the right direction. And the coalition agreement included a commitment to radical decentralisation and, perhaps surprisingly, to another review of local government finance.
It is hard to know how to react to the promise to examine council finance. Given that Layfield and Raynsford/Lyons were immediately shelved, it is hard to see what another review could achieve. Lyons was only published in 2007. The former government, to its discredit, never published a formal response.
If the government feels something should be done about local authority finance, then it should just do it. A green paper could be published in the autumn, including long-term proposals to reduce council dependence on central grants. Local government should offer to shoulder a major share of the burden of expenditure cuts in exchange for greater financial autonomy. A review would simply cause delay.
The Conservatives have long been the party of local institutions and small government. The Lib Dems have lobbied for devolution and a local income tax. Together, they should see the need for reduced public spending as a reason to decentralise power.
People used to think coalitions could never happen in Britain, but one has. Radical reform of local government is no longer an impossibility.
Tony Travers, Director, Greater London Group, London School of Economics