Local Government doing less to achieve more

Darlington Borough Council is skint. One of the smallest local authorities in the country, Darlington was created as a Unitary Authority in 1997. Since then, it has been governed (like many Northern councils) exclusively by Labour, and it now stands on the verge of bankruptcy (the two facts may not be unrelated).

Specifically, the Council have calculated the need for £12.5m in spending cuts over the next four years. To go: Darlington’s historic indoor market, the public library (both of which were donated to the town by the Pease family), the town centre’s Christmas lights and floral displays, several children’s centres, and multiple other social, environmental and cultural services. Streets will be swept less frequently. Charges will be introduced for blue badge holders.

Are these cuts to local services best blamed on central government, with its reduction in funding for local authorities, or on incompetent and profligate local councils? Certainly, cuts in central government funding have been made, with the provision of local services affected; certainly, other local authorities facing similar cuts are not broke. The truth of the matter is probably somewhere between the two!

What is undeniable, however, is the limited imagination of Darlington Borough Council in dealing with the situation it faces, and the lack of trust it places in its citizens being able to independently play a positive role in shaping and managing their town.The Council is taking the attitude that only it can provide municipal services – of any kind – and that’s all there is to it. It seems that nobody has asked the obvious question: outside of providing statutory services, why do local authorities need to have such strong control – financially and strategically – over local action? Services founded on central government remittances will always be at risk; services directly funded and supported by locals are sustainable for as long as denizens want to maintain them. Local authorities are unlikely to have a monopoly on wisdom: with low levels of democratic engagement in local politics all too common across the country, many authorities also lack popular accountability for the decisions they make.

With the growing decentralisation of project financing in the private sector, through crowdfunding and similar approaches, there exist (for the brave local authority) methods which can allow locals to determine – and fund – the projects and services which matter the most to them, in an entirely democratic and accountable fashion. With direct engagement and a personal stake in community development, local citizens may well develop a greater sense of civic pride – the same civic pride that allowed public subscription to raise the great town halls of Manchester and Bradford. Authorities can content themselves with providing a framework and, if they must, a veto. And council taxes and business rates can be reduced, increasing residents’ spending power and the attractiveness of the local area for businesses investment.

At the heart of our approach to local government should be the ideas of the decentralisation of power and allowing local residents to take control of their own civic affairs. Our strength in local administration is tied into our ability to bring local residents into the decision-making process, both directly and indirectly; and it’s no secret that effective local organisation is the foundation on which national success is built. Perhaps we can lead the way – by actively governing less – and show councils like Darlington that there is a way to develop prosperous, stable and proud local communities that relies less on central government largesse and more on the skills and priorities of local communities themselves.

* Simon Thornley is a member in Greenwich and joined the party after the General Election 2015. He is originally from Darlington.

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  • When Cameron’s Mum, Aunty and his local council, take him to task over his ‘cuts’ I think that says it all…

  • A Social Liberal 12th Feb '16 - 3:41pm

    Simon Thorley asked

    “outside of providing statutory services, why do local authorities need to have such strong control – financially and strategically – over local action? ”

    Simon, I live in a constituency where the top tier of local government – North Yorkshire County Council – has similarly forced through cuts and tried to replace so many former functions of that council with volunteers. It even asked for volunteers to drive the buses because local companies could not survive with their subsidies cut.

    Needless to say, public transport to and from my town has deteriorated because no volunteers were forthcoming, our libraries have lost their evening openings because not enough volunteers are available and our research facilities have been badly eroded because the trained, paid staff are too busy firefighting to help or facilitate.

    Volunteering is a good thing, but it should augment not replace the work carried out by those charged with doing that work.

  • Thomas Shakespeare 12th Feb '16 - 6:32pm

    Hi Simon,

    Great points. I wish more councils would take your ideas on board. These are exactly the sort of radical ideas we have to put at the forefront of our local government campaign.

  • Brian Keith Fiske 13th Feb '16 - 10:34am

    We have some of the highest paid Chief Officers in the Region but it has still cost £60,000 for Consultants to sort out Childrens Services. Was it a mistake to come out of Durham County Council? Can we afford small Authorities with expensive Chief Officers, and 50 Councillors many of whom get allowances as Chairs or Vice Chairs? It is these overheads which are burning up the money

  • Welcome Simon, and I agree that volunteers can assist the professionals and keep open the services we value and need for a thriving community. Closing services reduces face-to-face social networking which computers cannot redress.
    Brian is also correct that councillors and certain officers are paid far too much for doing too little and their allowances etc should be cut drastically.
    Successful councils will in future be those who can downsize the number and cost of central controllers but leave sufficient professionals in post to help and advise the volunteers. And, far from employing more costly consultants etc., councillors and officers need to consult with local organisations in order to draw in those who will be the future volunteers – as all of them will work together.
    As an aside, too many people stand for councils with poor experience of working with the people they intend to “serve”. In contrast, volunteers are not galvanised by lofty or remote planners but by the groups of citizens within which they already work as they have shared interests. One obvious volunteer group? Just think of all those senior citizens who can contribute and enjoy working together in some aspect they already know about.

  • Simon Thorley 14th Feb '16 - 11:06am

    @ Social Liberal: the main thrust of my argument isn’t that volunteers should take up all of the slack where local authority cuts are made (although I do feel that LA’s don’t do enough to make it easy for people to volunteer, due to their ‘need’ to strictly control the parameters of local projects – and the purse strings). It’s more that any local government action that relies on central government remittances is inherently vulnerable, as we’ve seen in Darlington and elsewhere.

    In many LAs, particularly the smaller ones, the idea that the council has a monopoly on ‘good ideas’ and the best way of implementing them is unsupportable. There’s a lack of expertise, compounded with a lack of accountability, which is probably an inevitable consequence of having local government funded through central taxation – they’re spending money that they didn’t have to raise. The Tory idea to devolve rate-setting to LAs is a step in the right direction, but doesn’t go far enough in my opinion.

  • Simon Thorley 14th Feb '16 - 11:09am

    @Brian Keith Fiske: there’s also the question of the million pounds Bill Dixon magicked up to cover the shortfall for the new multi-storey car park – a shortfall which was entirely the consequence of incompetent tendering in the first place, as far as I can see. There’s a distinct lack of competence. I can’t see how Darlington being a separate LA for the past 20 years has improved the quality of local services at all, in all honesty – and at what cost? A vanity project from the outset.

  • Neil Sandison 16th Feb '16 - 2:21pm

    The problem is the cuts have now gone so deep that the officer support local communities will need to deliver their own local services is not sustainable. Osbourne has realised this which is why this year he has allowed local councils to raise the council tax base .The Osbourne tax is likely to mean increases on average of about 6 to 8 % on a band D property if you take into account the various organisations competing for those resources on your council tax bill.Support devolved power and decision making but at the end of the day someone has to pay the bills.

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