Not all hanging together

Back in the late 1990s, the various local government associations for county councils, district councils and metropolitan authorities decided that it would be best to work together rather than in separate silos: so the Local Government Association was born.

The principle is obvious: local government, unprotected by a written constitution and loathed by much of the press, needs to make its case with central government, which can legislate away its powers and much of its money at the drop of a hat, regardless of the consequences on services or communities. MPs know best, after all, and Whitehall knows even better than MPs.

Conservative-controlled Surrey County Council seems keen on tearing up this approach. Like all shire counties it is between a rock and a hard place when it comes to social care: government grants have been cut, as part of never-ending austerity, while the demand for services rises annually as we all live longer.

The proposal for a 15% increase in the council tax precept drew intakes of (sometimes admiring) breath from around the country but we all suspected that the referendum necessary to approve such a large increase would be lost. It must, we thought, be principally a political move to put pressure on Tory ministers with seats in Surrey.

Amazingly, this cynicism proved to be close to the mark. Accidentally leaked texts showed the Surrey Tory Leader negotiating some sort of deal on behalf of his council (good for his council but bad for other councils who don’t have this sort of access to government). Ministerial denials followed as news got out: and the Government pretended that the contacts were just routine – not specific deals for Surrey.

Sadly the accident-prone Tory Leader of Surrey has been caught out again (see Guardian) because someone secretly recorded the Tory group meeting on 7 February.

The Government may, of course, be telling the truth but there is too much circumstantial detail in the recording to doubt the fact that a deal was sought and possibly agreed.

Backroom deals are not good government. There has, of course, always been an element of the loudest voice carrying the day in government policy-making – which is why there are lobbyists. It is also why there have been so many blunders over the years.

Doing separate deals behind closed doors is not the way to manage the social care funding crisis. But it might be interesting for Liberal Democrat councillors to ask locally why their Conservative administrations are not doing the same for their local communities. If Surrey can do this, why not Hertfordshire, or Essex or Shropshire…?

* Chris White is a member of the Liberal Democrat Voice Editorial Team, a Liberal Democrat Councillor from St Albans and Deputy Leader of the LGA Liberal Democrat Group.

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One Comment

  • Nigel Jones 9th Mar '17 - 4:31pm

    I am annoyed about the centralised control of our services and the removal of resources from local government. I include the building of a ‘national’ education system with the dangers of MATs becoming self-serving businesses, currently mainly interested in exam results and where in theory (at the moment) governors have no right to exist and heads of schools can (and sometimes already are) be overruled by the highly paid CEOs of the trusts.
    What happened to the Lib-Dem idea of a local income tax ? Even if it had flaws, surely some system of enabling LAs to be properly resourced according to local wishes and having influence over all local services is part of what we Lib-Dems are about ?

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