Councils and communities must rise to the Coalition challenge

People rather like to be able to blame someone else for the hard choices.  Speaking to that angry customer at work, isn’t it so much easier to blame management or “the rules” for not giving her a refund.  Isn’t it so much harder – and less pleasant – to explain to her that you’ve made the decision to deny her request and you could have decided otherwise, even though you’d rather like having that power.

Politicians are no different.  We want to have the power, but it doesn’t hurt if someone else can take the blame for those unpopular choices.

Labour are re-discovering it at Westminster – the joy of opposition; of being able to criticise every Coalition spending cut without saying what you’d do instead.

And for many years now the politicians running our local authorities up and down the country have enjoyed the same benefit.  Over recent decades, Conservative and then Labour governments have ensured that far too many powers sit with central government and too few with councils.

The result? The politicians – particularly those running the council – have been able to say, quite honestly and correctly but also rather helpfully, that the Government’s to blame.

You don’t want those houses built there?  Sorry, Whitehall’s tied our hands.  Your business rates are too high?  We’re just the tax collectors.

Under the Coalition, that’s changing.  Local authorities are already being freed from centralised house-building targets and there’s a lot more to come.

In fact, the largest bill in this parliamentary session (up to November 2011) will be devoted to local government, and we’re told it will roll back a great deal of central government interference, giving more power to local authorities and local communities (with David Cameron’s Big Society turning out not to be a million miles away from the Lib Dem’s community politics that we’ve been banging on about for – oh – only about four decades now).

That’s great news.  People in each area will get more power to take charge, both individually and collectively, of their lives and communities.  Local authorities will be better able to respond to the challenges they face and less time will be spent box-ticking so that nice civil servant down in Whitehall says you’re doing a good job.

But it’s also kind of scary.

It’s harder, for a start.  Genuine innovation always is.

Reading your council papers, turning up to meetings, asking the odd decent question, making the odd speech, deciding between options A, B and C prepared by council officers.  That’s not so tough.

Working with council officers to genuinely innovate in all those areas Whitehall previously took care of – that’s tougher.

Taking the blame when – inevitably – a proportion of your voters don’t agree with the decision you’ve made, and the opposition, as oppositions do, exploit it for all its worth.  That’s tougher.

We don’t have the details yet, but it’s clear the bill – with over forty clauses – will initiate a large and real move of power from Whitehall to local authorities and communities.  It will be scary but, just like the Coalition agreement itself, it’s the right thing to do and it’s up to the political parties, councillors and communities to rise to the challenge.

Read more by .
This entry was posted in Local government and Op-eds.


  • It’s great powers will be given back to communities but there are some things that need to rest with national or European Government and housing is one that does need a national say at the very least, otherwise we’ll end up with very little house building at all. How do we propose to build enough houses/ flats?

  • “People rather like to be able to blame someone else for the hard choices”
    If they didn’t there would be an awful lot of blank Focus leaflets.What on earth are the Lib Dems going to say if they are not blaming others for difficult decisions?

  • Our local – Labour-controlled but with Lib Dem and Tory councillors onboard – council in Kirklees has prepared for I think 25% cuts since last year, and since the election has set up – as a Lib/Lab project proposed for years with Tories objecting – “3 ward forums and 6 town and valley committees to help local people to influence local decisions”. (This is quoting Cllr Mehboob Khan, Labour council Leader, Kirklees – but I had already learned of this in our Lib Dem Exec Meeting earlier this month)

  • Andrew Suffield 21st Jun '10 - 7:58am

    how radical will it be if the SoS thinks he can micromanage refuse collection, which he plainly does?

    I haven’t been following that, but I thought he instructed somebody to stop micromanaging refuse collection?

  • All very good and well, but not nearly as attractive when combined with cuts to Local Councils AND a freeze in council tax.

  • gramsci's eyes 21st Jun '10 - 9:33am

    Your self justifications are just getting silly.

    An imposed freeze on council tax by Whitehall.

    Go local democracy.

  • Don’t forget the chaos of academies and free schools which will make a mockery of local education choice whilst allowing no consultation for parents. All there will soon be left for councils to do is bin collection.

  • Entirely agree with the comments made above. The ‘localism’ policy espoused by the government seems to amount to local councils being free to do whatever they like (provided it agrees with Conservative policy!)

  • What freedom to decide exactly is being given here – Central Government tells Local Councils to make 25% cuts but then says ‘ you Councils must chose to which services to cut not us’ – and then guess who will blame the Councils for the cuts!

    Doesn’t sound much like real local democracy to me.

    Wouldn’t much fancy being a LD councillor in any urban area right now, where there is still an opposition to vote for – although those in rural areas can still claim to be the only opposition to the Tories (that’s beginning to sound strange and that should worry us as lots of voters are beginning to say they can’t tell the difference). Those of our party who are councillors must be quaking in their shoes for carrying the empty can they’ve been gievn, especially as many of them campaigned that a they were the only way to defeat Tory cuts only a few weeks ago.

  • PS
    Oh, can we all ask very nicely please, if we can include PR in the Bill too please – or is it ‘too early in the coalition’ to rock that particular boat?

Post a Comment

Lib Dem Voice welcomes comments from everyone but we ask you to be polite, to be on topic and to be who you say you are. You can read our comments policy in full here. Please respect it and all readers of the site.

To have your photo next to your comment please signup your email address with Gravatar.

Your email is never published. Required fields are marked *

Please complete the name of this site, Liberal Democrat ...?


Recent Comments

  • James Baillie
    I of course largely agree with Sandy's comment above. Re what Tristan said - I don't disagree with you that we need to shift Tory voters, as someone who grew...
  • Tom
    Yue He - I echo what others have said. It would be a crying shame if someone thought that they couldn’t be involved in our party or our parliament because of ...
  • Bob Hale
    Keep going Yue He. Your obvious enthusiasm will get you there!...
  • Cassie
    @Jenny, 'the government has spent...' Indeed. But that doesn't answer the question: 'what have repeated strikes achieved for rail workers?' Which so far is 'n...
  • Joe Bourke
    The Conservatives have already raised income taxes by freezing personal allowances and increasing corporation tax from 19% to 25%. Neither the Conservatives or ...