Opinion: Getting serious about localism

Local growth deals are a good thing. Of course they are. How could they not be? Now what are they again?

The mechanics of government finance never cease to amaze or bore. But we do need to care because when it comes to devolution, it’s a question of ‘follow the money’.

There are in fact, according to a Local Government Association report last week, 124 funding streams for local growth and regeneration. These are spread across 20 Government departments and agencies and account for a total of £22 billion, all to be spent in your local area on your local things.

So when the Government announces it is devolving £2 billion on LGFs, context becomes rather significant. As does the essentially pointless complexity, worthy of an abbey full of medieval theologians.

Those in the know are fully on top of the difference between the Custom Build fund, the Community Right to Build fund, the Beds in Sheds fund, the New Homes Bonus and the Decent Homes fund. And the difference between the Linking Places fund, the Local Pinch Point fund, the Local Sustainable Transport fund and the Better Bus Areas fund. I could go on. But I promise I won’t.

There is basically still no concept of letting the locals get on with it. The imperial Parliament which had an empire to run and a war to win in 1945 is still just as busy as it ever was, as is Whitehall. But with much less to do.

MPs who, in the immediate post war period, would never have dreamed of getting involved in local issues now happily deal with constituency complaints about local planning applications, safe in the knowledge that in the UK at least all politics is not local.

Perhaps this is one of the reasons why there is a referendum in Scotland. And one of the reasons why there is so little interest in local government by those who should be but aren’t voting in local elections.

If the sleeping giant of the English cities and shires do awake in reaction to massive devolution to Scotland, then it could start with seizing control of the £22 billion destined for local areas – and the taxes which go with it, like business rates, stamp duty land tax and even capital gains tax.

And then perhaps parliamentarians can get back to scrutinising legislation rather than being the Local Councillors in Chief.

* Chris White is a Hertfordshire County Councillor and Deputy Leader (Policy) of the Liberal Democrat Group at the Local Government Association

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  • Good article. But this is federalism you describe, not localism.

  • I am not sure I agree with that comment, Duncan, not one iota! Chris, do you not find it a weeny bit h*pocritical to talk of Local Councillors in Chief, when it has been our party who has predominantly fired up this movement which has elected many councillors to Parliament, often with the aim of getting more resources / more locally favourable decisions etc, through our admittedly, centralised political and decision system? I agree scrutinising legislation is one area for MPs to look at, but we have pushed “integrated campaigning” as a party, and I don’t see that that is any less advantageous now than it ever was. We live in an ever smaller world, and we need to coordinate carefully what we do at all levels, and across national jurisdictions and international bodies.

  • As a PS, looking back over Hansard you will see the discussion (over everybody else’s heads!) between two of our then Devon Tory MPs, Peter Emery and Anthony Steen, regretting how the HoC had become a haven of local social work, encouraged by (you guessed it!) the Lib Dems. For cognoscenti (or Lib Dem n*erds) they also engage in a discussion about Lib Dem PPCs named Rachel, getting their facts quite muddled! I don’t think either MP is badly missed, certainly not in this party.

  • Chris
    Before I retired as a civil servant I was one of those people (and there were some) who tried to make the system work despite all the faults you point up about the sclerosis in Imperial Whitehall.
    Because I was so far down the food chain having come from a Grammar School rather than those schools that provide mandarins, I had to actually get my hands dirty and talk to local councils , the LGA etc.
    Whilst I could not possibly suggest that there was any bending of the rules to get round orthodox Treasury practices — there are those who would quite reasonably point out that this country would grind to a halt if we all always did what the Treasury demands.
    I never needed to call for advice from an abbey full of medieval theologians, but if I had needed to there would have been a number of senior civil servants with the relevant Oxbridge Degree in thirteenth century church history to point me in the right direction.
    The upper reaches of the civil service are stuffed with people who would be only too happy to abolish local councils altogether and run everything direct from Whitehall Departments. I assume Mr Gove was very popular with such people, but that is an assumption as I have no direct knowledge of Mr Gove or his department. It is less easy to find many senior civil servants with a knowledge of local councils, or whomhave a concept of local democracy let alone enthusiasm for it. Although I did once come across someone who was very active in the local commune in France, where they had their second home.

  • A staple of council debates is that “we can’t do X because fund Y has been abolished”. Presumably it was always thus, with funds being stopped and started all the time. And perhaps this reveals the tragedy – that councils are so used to this system that they would stop doing many things altogether if the money arrived in some less hypothecated way.

    The question I suppose would be whether that money would then be spent on something better, or on something worse.

  • @Tim13

    ” we have pushed “integrated campaigning” as a party”

    I often hear those who ‘talk the talk’ but the party has NOT ‘walked the walk’. We live in a culture where local government spends three quarters of its life working out how to bid for this, that and t’other from the control freaks in the centre.

  • John Tilley

    Does it matter which school one went to? Based upon your logic Dowding who went to Winchester was incapable of running fighter command during the Battle of Britain or Sterling(Ampleforth ) of Founding the SAS. When someone said to E Bevin there were too many public schhol boys in the Foreign Office his reply was ” They did all right in the battle of Britain. General Sir Michael ( Cheltenham ), Brig Eddie Butler( Eton ) , P de la Billiere ( Harrow ) were all COs of 22 SAS . Barnes Wallis went to Christ’s Hospital; did that stop him becoming a good engineer? J Dyson went to public school, does that mean he is no good ? Twice as many students at A level take maths and science subjects at public school than comprehensives. Only 60% of comprehensives offer Further Maths A Level.

    A good engineer is a good engineer. I would suggest the problem is the lack of technical expertise and experience are the problems . The Civil Service largely selects people with arts degrees. I suggest the civil service needs to select chartered engineers to run transport, defence , energy and agriculture. We need people who have the experience of designing, constructing and operating structures and machines.

    I would suggest that when local politicians a and MPs had manufacturing , engineering and craft skills they did a better job. In the 19C and up to about 1973 , many councilors were successful professionals who appreciated the skills to solve problems. When it comes to planning , many councilors lack the ability to read and understand the documents.
    If one owns a factory and has the experience of building one or developing new products one has the experience of spotting problems and solving them.

    If local councils included experienced foremen from the construction and manufacturing , then many development problems would be reduced. I think the long working and commuting hours means that many people with the expertise do not have the time to be councilors.

  • Great article Chris 🙂

  • Joe Otten
    I agree with your observation.

    When I was a councillor I soon became aware that council officers in the engineers department (i was chairnof the resonsiblemcommittee) were bidding for and spending money on whatever scheme was popular with government. The government jumped from one thing to another from year to year and funds for contradctory policies were sometimes being implemented at the same time!!
    Local priorities or the wishes of the voters did not even enter their heads. So roads were widened, or sleeping police-men were installed, etc not because there was a local demand or particular need but because the department was good at winning funding bids from government .

    By waynof contrast if a petition for a zebra crossing came from local people, they would be fobbed off with the “no resources available but if you wait five years …,” type of excuse.
    We changed all that and we got rid of the senior officer in the department and passed his work on to a lower level officer who was more competent and more receptive to the concept of local democracy. Things got a bit better after that and local needs replaced the government ‘flavour of the month’ approach. In some cases we got less funding from central government, but what is the point of funding things that people do not need and do not want.

  • Charlie
    There is a lot in your comment, I hope you will understand if I do not respond to every point. I do not have your knowledge of military figures of the 1940s nor of the details of the development of the SAS.

    In the second decade of the 21st century I woud suggest to you that it matters very much if jobs are restricted to just 7% of the population whilst ignoring the talents and the potential of the other 93%.

  • Tsar Nicolas 18th Sep '14 - 2:38pm

    The Lib Dems in wales are not in favour of localism, so far as I can see.

    The current big thing from Cardiff Bay is to reduce Wales’s 22 unitary authorities to just eight.

    22 was a massive reduction from the provisions of the 1972 Local government Act, which itself facilitated a massive reduction from the local authorities created in 1888 and 1894.

    And yet the Welsh Liberal Democrats seem to be all in favour!

  • Paul Reynolds 18th Sep '14 - 3:00pm

    Bravo Chris !!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

  • David Evershed 18th Sep '14 - 3:31pm

    If Lib Dems really believe in localism then we would be seeking the return of powers from the EU, not the status quo.

    After all we say we want subsidiarity in Europe, making decisions at the lowest possible level.

  • Tony Greaves 18th Sep '14 - 4:11pm

    When it comes to local democracy, and our different ideas and beliefs of how it should work, the Liberal Democrats have completely lost their way, with ALDC in the forefront of this serious failure. Everywhere, not just in Wales where local democracy is to be effectively abolished.


  • Ron Tindall 19th Sep '14 - 9:46am

    AH Chris, the heady heights of local government BT – before Thatcher.

  • Tonys (Tonies?) Dawson and Greaves Couldn’t agree with you more. Much more walking the walk and reinstating local control of important services. I am afraid our Parliamentarians (perhaps in the Commons rather than the Lords!) have allowed austerity to become a cover for the large scale centralisation of services currently taking place. If the result in Scotland goves momentum to reverse that trend, so much the better.

  • John Tilley

    That is why I pointed out the following
    1. Public school pupils take twice as many A Levels in maths and science as those in comprehensives.
    2. Only 60% of comprehensives offer Further Maths a Level. There is also an Additional Further Maths A level.
    3. Further Maths a level is required for maths, physics , engineering and probably chemistry at IC, Oxbridge, UCL , Warwick and any other top universities.
    4. It has been known for someone to read Physics at Oxford without Further Maths but they struggled.
    5. In France , the civil servants and those who run their nationalised industries are engineering graduates of their grand ecoles. This is why I suggest that the civil servants running defence, transport,energy and agriculture should be recruited from chartered engineers.

    If one looks at East India College when it was run by the East India Company , the civil servants ( as opposed to the military officers) were taught maths, political economy, asian languages, law and history.

    The major issue of class is that after 1857 the public schools trained pupils for the following
    1. Imperial civil service.
    2. Home civil service.
    3. Diplomatic corp.
    4. The church
    5. The city
    6. The army
    7.The law
    8. Oxbridge fellow
    Education was Latin , Greek, divinity, history, geography, a little maths but no science or modern languages. From 1870 with the reduction in agricultural incomes, land owners went into the city. From 1870 most public schools developed a contempt for trade, technology, industry and engineering: the exception were careers in the RN, RE and RA( trained at Woolwich). The top 50% from Woolwich undertook a 2 yr degree at Cambridge.

    Most engineers and industrial scientists came from grammar schools and either attended local universities or studied at night school after they had finished their apprenticeships.

    The 19/20C aristocratic contempt for trade and technology was reinforced by the 1960s middle class left wing contempt for trade and technology. The massive 1960s expansion in university education increased numbers in arts and social sciences and did very little for engineering, technology and applied science- read A Sampsons Anatomy of UK 1965 and 1982 books. For a satirical look at trade and technology read C Northcote Parkinson’s Law books.

    In order for inner city children to enter IC/Oxbridge and read STEM subjects , they need to be taught by graduates from this background. Not every comprehensive can offer top graduates, that is why I think specialised 6th forms should be offered or they should be sent to grammar/private schools.A teacher with a B.Ed in science is not going to appreciate what it takes to obtain a I or IIi from IC/Oxbridge and also take part in university activities. There is no point in sending someone to university if they cannot cope when they arrive.

    When we look at H2S and then compare with former Central Trunk railway line , there is a need for very high level expertise at local level. The reality is that most district council engineers, officers and councilors have low level of technical expertise. County councils have some engineering expertise but most expertise lies with framework contractors which combine consulting and contracting engineering companies. The problem is that few district, county and whitehall civil servants have the ability to draft contracts such that risk is evenly spread.

    I would suggest PFI and any other form of outsourcing will only work for the taxpayer when the civil servants are chartered engineers and surveyors who have the same level of technical skill and experience in design, construction and operation as those bidding for the work.

    I have spoke to a LA engineer who did not have an understanding of thermal expansion of metal, a subject which used to be covered in week 1 of A level physics!

    I would suggest that many of the problems why result in Britain working well, is that we lack sufficient people with the technical skill and experience at all levels . As the late Prof P Vaughan FREng of IC said ” All the A teams are in court arguing about the mistakes of the B teams !”.

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