Opinion: Does the central and local government relationship need rewiring?

Wired Government smallerThe relationship between central and local government in the UK has always been strained. The UK is one of the most centralised democracies in Europe, and as we have no written constitution local government has no automatic right to exist or do anything. Everything is dependent on the decisions of ministers.

The new Government in 2010 did good things in reversing some of the things the last right-wing, authoritarian and centralising government had done. The huge inspection and reporting regime was abolished. Ring fencing of budgets was mainly done away with. The Localism Act was brought in that gave local government the power of local competence.

In other ways the new government has acted in a similar way to the last government. Ministers and civil servants love making decisions and letting go of this is really tough.

There have been real exceptions. The Department of Health has made the most progress with the passing over of public health and £3.8 billion for care budgets.

Many other parts of central government are less helpful.

One local private sector chief executive I know had his bid to invest in UK transport infrastructure held up for six years by Government agencies. His company’s multinational owners describe the UK investment scene as toxic and will invest their money elsewhere in the world.

We have all seen both DCLG and DWP pull more powers away from local decision making and into Whitehall. This may be in the really badly thought through changes in planning, to Ministers deciding how many council magazines can be published to the centralisation of job creation schemes. Ministers’ terror of council housing keeps in place an artificial cap on local government housing borrowings that stops homes being built, construction jobs being created and the economy growing.

There has also been the fragmentation of services so that local people can have no influence or knowledge of what is going on. The academy programme of schools has seen massive amounts of public money moved to private companies and out of public view. With only one local governor on many academy schools and no duty for them to co-operate with other schools and councils we are seeing a huge waste of public resources at a time of great pressure on public funds.

So how do we rewire the relationship between central and local government? In the same way that local newspapers are trusted by many more people than national newspapers, polling evidence says that local councils are much more trusted than central government. Currently local government has responsibility for about 8% of all public money spent in a local area. Both this government and the last government have said warm words about local area budgeting, but nothing in reality has happened. Government is addicted to the centralised departmental spend of budgets. Even in areas like job creation where local links are so vital central government chooses to waste many millions of pounds on ineffective centrally procured contracts that achieve less than a 5% success rate instead of using local councils with their links to local firms.

To rewire the relationship between central and local government there needs to be a change of emphasis. We need:

  • A relationship that allows independence – financial and constitutional – at a local area.
  • A relationship that allows local decision making and relies on local voters to punish the inefficient and bad councils and to reward the good.

We are still awaiting the decision of central government ministers and civil servants to see if they want to move away from a dependant, adult – child relationship to an adult relationship based on trust and independence. But giving up control and allowing an adult relationship may just be too tough for them.

* Gerald Vernon-Jackson is leader of Portsmouth City Council, Lib Dem Leader at the Local Government Association and Chair of the English State Party of the Liberal Democrats

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6 Comments

  • Graham Martin-Royle 23rd Aug '13 - 10:39am

    “as we have no written constitution ”

    And there is the problem.

  • David Rogers 23rd Aug '13 - 11:03am

    “The Department of Health has made the most progress” – yes, and not just the return of public health responsibilities and the mitigation of Pickles’ cuts with the social care money. The Health & Social Care Act 2012’s creation of Health and Wellbeing Boards in 152 local authority areas across the country provides a real opportunity for local leadership of the whole health and social care system, and far greater influence over priorities and spending plans. Thank you Paul Burstow – and keep up the good work Norman Lamb!

  • Cllr.Nigel Jones 24th Aug '13 - 12:23pm

    I am so pleased that Gerald has written this. The next step is for the party to take this matter seriously enough to put something in our manifesto about how we will push for change.
    I remember shortly after the coalition was established, Eric Pickles was interviewed on newsnight about localism. He said that localism was not about giving more powers to local government and local councillors, but about giving more powers to people. The implication of that is power to pressure groups, those who already have access to people and money to stand up for themselves (rather than those who most need support) and probably right-wing residents who wish to maintain the status quo against the common good. His actions since that interview have confirmed that he is not in favour of more powers to local government.
    As far as our party is concerned, what has happened to the idea of local government raising more money locally, by local income tax and/or local land tax ? Finance is at the core of decision-making powers.

  • Fantastic – who could disagree (a Tory or Labour voter probably)

  • “• A relationship that allows local decision making and relies on local voters to punish the inefficient and bad councils and to reward the good.”

    The key is surely some pilot schemes for a proportional local electoral system which is where we should have started instead of the ludicrous AV debacle.

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