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Rubbing salt in the wounds

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Local government’s latest claim to infamy is its failure during the recent wintry weather.

Or, more precisely, the failure to keep the country’s roads clear. The national media have laid the blame for icy roads squarely at the door of councils. There have even been reports that Britain is importing salt.

Local Government Association spokespeople were dragged to television studios to explain councils’ apparent failure. In the capital, different parts of local government attacked each other. Transport for London laid the blame for the withdrawal of London’s buses on the boroughs’ inadequate gritting.

The problem is that councils have responsibility for an array of provision where there is a serious risk of visible failure. Not only are local authorities responsible for gritting the roads, but they must protect children at risk, reduce anti-social behaviour and make toxic planning decisions.

Many of the most contested and awkward problems within political life are in the hands of councils. Moreover, local government is funded by the only really visible tax paid in Britain.

It is instructive to contrast the inconsistent approaches adopted by central government in its efforts to change public behaviour. Thus, the recently started anti-obesity campaign, run by the Department of Health , is gentle, amusing and non-judgmental.

The campaign material does not feature overweight people. To encourage better health, small shops are being given grants to encourage them to sell fruit and vegetables.

But where local government is used as an intermediary, Whitehall departments (and Europe) use a different approach. In an attempt to encourage the public to change behaviour, councils will be fined if they do not reduce the use of landfill for waste disposal.

Authorities have been encouraged to charge for waste collection and, separately, road use. Ministers have also said councils should increase their overall income from fees and charges. Yet the government itself has recently taken action to remove some charges for public transport and swimming.

Central government wants to be loved. Ministers are so used to being pilloried for everything they do that they like to offer voters little acts of kindness in an attempt to buy favour. Pensioners have been given free bus travel and a fund has been set up to pay for free swimming for under-16s and over-60s.

As the recession bites, it is easy to imagine the government demanding additional ‘free’ services from councils.

Local government needs to make clear that the services it provides involve complex rationing and, often, unpopular decisions. Central government generally avoids such exposure locally and is taking steps to create a national planning commission to reduce the number of awkward national-scale decisions.

Increasingly, councils are exposed precisely because they deliver services the public relies upon. This is both a good and a bad place to be.

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