Local Government Should Be At The Heart Of Our Democracy – It Must Be Defended And Strengthened

By | October 29, 2017
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Originally published: J

If any authors were going to make the case for local government as a crucial element in the democratic viability of our unitary state and equally as crucial to local social, economic and environmental welfare it would be Professors George Jones, John Stewart and Steve Leach.

Their new book ‘Centralisation, Devolution and the Future of Local Government in England’ published by Routledge this summer proves this to be the case.

Sadly and unexpectedly George Jones died just before the book’s publication. I had known George since my under-graduate days at the LSE and continued our friendship for forty-four years. Coincidentally, I had met George only a few days prior to his sudden death and on that occasion he was keen to tell me about the book and its arguments, as he had on previous times we had met. Therefore, reading this book has been both an emotional and an intellectual experience.

I picked up ‘Centralisation, Devolution and the Future of Local Government in England’ with high expectations and these were to be realised from the introduction to the final page.

Given the impact of central government imposed austerity, and the consequential cuts which have disproportionately hit local government and the continuous rhetorical promotion of ‘localism’, ‘decentralisation’ and ‘devolution’ in England, the book is very timely. The authors refer to what they call the ‘myth of localism’ and challenge the assumption that recent governments (including the current one) really want to strengthen local government by devolving power, authority and resources to elected local politicians. I have much sympathy with their argument.

They are understandably critical of New Labour’s micro-performance management though could have recognised it had some short-term results though in the long term strangled local government.

The current government is centralising control of schools, failing adequately to transfer sufficient funding to match devolved powers, cutting financial support to local authorities and taking additional powers to control and direct local authorities under the claim of ‘localism’.

The autors cite Eric Pickles, Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government in the Coalition government as saying his priorities were “localism, localism and localism” – this at the same time as he extended his powers of direction and intervention, capped council tax increases and even attempted to instruct local authorities how frequently they should empty local dustbins!

Mr. Pickles was a former council leader yet he spent much of his time in office attacking local government in a most populist manner. Sadly, he was not the only former councillor who on becoming a minister sought to control local authorities from Whitehall.

The current underfunding and cuts to local authorities’ finances are simply amplifying the straitjacket that central government – politicians and civil servants – seemingly like to impose on their local government colleagues. Of course, these centralists clearly but wrongly do not see council leaders, elected mayors and councillors as colleagues with their own democratic mandate. This is a serious English governance problem.

The chapters on how local government and central government relations have developed over decades and the implications for local government are illuminating. They are very important if we are to understand the current state of relations and of local government itself.

All three of the authors are passionate about the importance and the role of local government and of councillors. They say there is no evidence that councillor quality and effectiveness is in decline (though England has fewer councillors than most EU countries per head of population). They make the case for strong scrutiny and representative roles for councillors – a role that can be forgotten when so much emphasis is placed on elected mayors, leaders and cabinets. And thankfully, there is recognition that political parties have an important contribution to make and that those who argue that they don’t are mistaken – parties strengthen democracy.

The book suggests that the core values for local government should be based on

building and articulating community identity

promoting citizenship and participation

dispersing power (subsidiarity)

I would personally add two more

shaping and leading place

promoting place externally

The emphasis on community governance, and building and promoting communities is core to what local government should be about. These can’t be undertaken by central government, nor when public services are fragmented.

The authors make the point that central government’s fixation with markets and market solutions in the wider context of neo-liberalism has often driven the imposition of policies on local government – e.g. Compulsory Competitive Tendering (CCT), relaxation of planning controls, diminishing council housing and introducing a market-based social care system, etc. – which have not raised standards in services nor enhanced local democratic choice.

Central government and Parliament have a right to legislate but when this impacts on local government and potentially limits the latter’s choice, there should be appropriate engagement with local government prior to introducing laws.

Central government should not be seeking more powers and more controls, and should not attempt to do what ought to be locally decided. The book rightly questions the damaging and constraining impact this can have on the civil service machine and indeed ministers. Subsidiarity is important in England as much as in the EU; and in local places with local government devolving to local communities.

The authors make the strong case for a constitutional settlement to define and protect the role and rights of local government. They argue that this should be overseen by a unit at the centre of central government, which would monitor how all departments (and especially departments such as Health, Education and the Home Office), respect and honour the settlement and the principles on which it was based. There would be a joint committee of both Houses of Parliament to monitor the government’s behaviour. The settlement would have eight core principles based on local democratic practice and subsidiarity. And it would reflect the European Charter of Local Self-government, which the UK has actually adopted, if not often practised.

Jones, Stewart and Leach are very strongly in favour of local authorities deriving their finance locally from their own taxes and charges, including the retention of business rate revenues. They would like local government to have wider local taxation policies than is currently the case. They rightly argue that these approaches would both enhance the independence of local government from Whitehall and strengthen local democratic accountability.

However, they naturally acknowledge and support the need for central government to provide financial support to compensate for the vast inequalities between places and their tax raising potential. The authors say that this funding should be an equalisation measure to respond to disparities in revenues and not be based on some centrally created formula based on some form of central assessment of need as is the case today. Personally, it would have been useful if the book had explained in more detail how this might work. I also wonder if the impact of gross inequalities of revenue raising potential and of social, economic and environmental needs will require more pro-active central government redistribution than might be implied in the book.

It would be hard to disagree with the authors’ call a revaluation of property values with a greater number of higher council tax bands. I have always thought that this would be a better policy than the introduction of a Whitehall driven ‘mansion tax’. Likewise, with their proposals for capital investment and borrowing.

The book raises some important questions about unitary versus two or even three tier local government – though inexplicably, there is too little (actually, there is almost no) reference to parish, town and community councils; and about the electoral system and whether some form of proportional representation should be introduced. I believe that this would strengthen local government but it would be important to retain the direct link between wards and neighbourhoods and elected councillors.

There is a democratic deficit in England and undermining local government adds to this. This must be addressed; it must be addressed based on place; it must include local democratic decision-making and accountability for much more of public expenditure and state activity than is currently the case; and it must be based around communities and a real sense of what place is and means for the people who live there.

Having recently read Fenner Brockway’s excellent biography of Dr Alfred Salter the radical pioneering Leader of Bermondsey Borough Council I am reminded more than ever why local government matters and can be a force for good. Salter should be a role model for all council leaders. I believe that he would have enjoyed ‘Centralisation, Devolution and the Future of Local Government in England’.

It is an important book. It should be read by contemporary councillors, council officials, civil servants, parliamentarians and ministers, and by commentators. And it should be a rallying call for those of us who share its authors’ passion for local government.

It is also a great tribute to George Jones