Opinion: Localism is dead – what hope for Local Government ?

Sheffield Town HallThe Localism Act was introduced in November 2011 on a promise of new freedoms and flexibilities for local government, new rights and powers for communities and individuals, and a guarantee to make the planning system more democratic so as to ensure decisions about housing reflect local community wishes. Even the most ardent supporters of this coalition government will be hard pushed to provide evidence that localism has done anything of the sort.

Instead, what we have witnessed in the past four years is a constant reduction of local government budgets leading to a steady erosion of their capacity to deliver local priorities. Could that be why the public are losing interest in politics and politicians, and why turnout in elections – particularly local elections – keeps falling ?

The Autumn Statement courtesy of Messrs Osborne and Alexander will do little to change this but instead  will serve to push another nail in the local government coffin. The chancellor has sought to sweeten the pill by pumping more money into health services and infrastructure. Both are, of course, welcome but both are essentially central government responsibilities being provided at a cost to genuine Local Council services, Osborne’s plans will effectively put discretionary local government deliverables out into the cold over the next five years.

Local government has broad shoulders, it is true. It has dealt with restrictions on pay and pensions, a cap on welfare spending and prepared itself for the  37% cut in government spending to 2016. But the time is fast approaching when even the most committed local councillors and most dedicated local authority managers will ask what the point of it all is. These people are in local government because they want to provide good services and a good quality of life for local residents. They will walk away when they find they can no longer do so.

Reflecting on the impact of the planned new cuts to public service finances Gillian Fawcett, from the Association of Chartered Certified Accountants, says “There is little doubt that public services will have to think smarter and be braver about how they plan their future finances. It will be simply not good enough to approach budget cuts as slicing the salami as there will come a time when there is no salami left to slice”.  I think Gillian understates the problem. The fact is there is very little salami left to slice and soon there will be none.

It beggars belief that Osborne and Alexander think it OK to reduce local government finances in the face of growing pressure on public services brought about by population change. Surely even they know that a system in which demand and costs are going up and funding is going down is unsustainable.

Do they not realise that as every local authority in the country grapples with spending pressures because demand for their services have going up, giving them less money to deliver essential services will result in rationing and pile more misery on those least able to shoulder them? Or do they simply not care ?

Don’t get me wrong. As a long serving local councillor I know only too well that local government will never consider cutting services unless it is forced to as last resort. This year many councils dipped into the reserves they had built up through prudent management to maintain service levels. But if indiscriminate government cuts continue to take away their ability to build up reserves in the face of rising costs of service delivery how long will it be before the first Council calls in the administrator ? Could it be Cameron and Osborne’s secret long term plan is to bring in the private sector to run Local Councils. Well,  if hospitals, prisons and schools, why not local councils?

It is obvious that Cameron and Osborne think Local Government is there to serve them. I expect Clegg and Alexander on the other hand to know better . I trust they will warn our coalition colleagues that if local government dies there is a danger the very sense of democratic government in this country is at risk.

* Rabi Martins is the East of England Diversity Champion. He is a councillor and Chair of Planning on Watford Borough Council.

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31 Comments

  • Simon McGrath 8th Dec '14 - 10:23am

    So what should we cut instead ?

  • Tsar Nicolas 8th Dec '14 - 10:31am

    Simon McGrath 8th Dec ’14 – 10:23am

    So what should we cut instead ?”

    Nothing.

    We are in a deflationary spiral, not a recovery. Cutting makes no sense at all. Run a bigger deficit or use the inherent credit creation powers of the Bank of England to finance a round of capital expenditure – £275 billion minimum, much of which will go to local government.

  • Matthew Huntbach 8th Dec '14 - 10:37am

    Rabi Martins

    It beggars belief that Osborne and Alexander think it OK to reduce local government finances in the face of growing pressure on public services brought about by population change. Surely even they know that a system in which demand and costs are going up and funding is going down is unsustainable.

    Indeed. The situation has been made much worse for us by the way the national party leadership, instead of issuing statements which distance ourselves from the Autumn Statement and make clear that it is a Tory document with a bit of LibDem influence – naturally, given the balance of the parties in Parliament – has issued statements about it being “Liberal Democrat to the core” or similar wording, tying ourselves to the policy direction in this statement as if is something we enthusiastically support.

    It is the usual process whereby local government is forced to make big spending cuts to enable national government to carry on with fewer cuts for those services it is directly responsible for. The aim seems to be that whoever controls the local council will get the blame. Sadly, the way local politics tends to be played, whoever is not in control at local level tends to play along with this.

    Local government HAS to make the cuts, it cannot borrow money as national government can. The job of local government now is just to make big cuts, to manage as best as can decline and degradation of service. It’s not a job I’d like to do, if I were a councillor I’d refuse to stand again, because it means doing a job which is impossible. It’s time to say “Enough is enough, it can’t be one, YOU national government take over, and you take the blame”. I’d say the Liberal Democrats should boycott local elections in protest about what the national Tory government is asking councils to do – but we have this awkward thing that it isn’t just a Tort government, and our national leadership seems so keen on making out it’s just as much a Liberal Democrat government.

    Trumpeting tax cuts, as the national party leadership and PR people have been doing, when it is obvious there are so many pressures pushing spending need up, is madness. We need to be honest with the people of this country about this issue. The ad-man’s “It’s all super-duper wonderful” lines coming from the top of the party are an insult to intelligence, and it’s clear most of the population aren’t impressed by them, as they are doing nothing to win us back lost support.

  • Matthew Huntbach 8th Dec '14 - 10:44am

    Simon McGrath

    So what should we cut instead ?

    The amount of money that is sloshing around going to people not for any effort on their part but because they own property or are the heirs to those who own property.

    Wealth needs to come with responsibility. Those who have it should use some of it to make productive income, otherwise expect to see their holdings gradually reduced. The Tories call this “an attack on entrepreneurship” or similar words. By this they mean it is better to reward past entrepreneurial activity, perhaps generations back, than to create a situation where new entrepreneurs can get going and make new wealth. The way in which earned income now is so eaten up by housing costs is a huge drag on any sort of entrepreneurial activity. It make risk-taking much more dangerous, forces those who don’t come from wealthy backgrounds to seek safe and secure jobs rather than to try out new ideas.

  • matt (Bristol) 8th Dec '14 - 10:50am

    Simon:
    ‘We’ should not be cutting uniformly across the board based on dictat from the centre – these decisions should be being made at a more local level by local councillors or regional groups of councils (or ideally, regional authorities).

    I also chuddered at Danny Alexander’s plan for house-building by central government — not really the act of a party that believes in devolution of powers and planning.

  • matt (Bristol) 8th Dec '14 - 10:50am

    Sorry, shuddered, not ‘chuddered’ (nice word, don’t know what it means).

  • I’m for local control of spending etc. . However checks safeguards as local government is corrupt and open to corruption SAFE GUARDS monitoring and I’m for

  • OK, so if you can’t identify another area of spending to cut in order to spend more on local government and you want to raise taxes instead, you still have this problem: Health, education, police, defence, welfare, transport, foreign aid, etc, etc, etc all have a case to make that they need this extra tax money you’ve chosen to raise more than local government does. Convince us they’re wrong.

    [Of course in reality, the budget is still far from balanced, so savings from elsewhere and tax rises will be going towards balancing the budget, rather than to local government, or to whichever other department is even more deserving.]

  • Jenny Barnes 8th Dec '14 - 11:50am

    “Health, education, police, defence, welfare, transport, foreign aid”
    mmm. Well, I would start with £15 billion off the roads budget, and £100 billion of the Tridenty waving budget. Then we could take some rail franchises back into public ownership, I understand East Coast had very low subsidies when it was run by the state. Lets see. Oh, I know, lets sell those aircraft carriers with no planes to someone, and buy the helicopter assault carrier from France. Much more useful. And 50 billion off the HS2 budget. That’s a total of £165 billion, not far off 2 years deficit. But I would then spend serious amounts of money on building houses, in order to reduce housing benefit – (oh look, a cut in welfare). Probably by purchasing agricultural land at a small premium to agricultural land cost, allocating planning permission post purchase, and selling off some of that land to developers with the residential planning permission. In london, build over carparks, light industrial sheds etc. Education – we could remove charitable status from the private schools for oligarchs. I see no reason why the state should subsidise anyone using their wealth to leverage their offspring into a privileged position for the next generation.
    Having had some recent experience in the NHS, I suspect the amount of enforced paperwork could be reduced, without significantly reducing the quality of patient experience.
    That’s most of your candidates; police and foreign aid I would leave alone, but maybe someone else has good ideas.

  • Tsar Nicolas 8th Dec '14 - 11:54am

    Joe Otten

    You start from two false premises – 1. That the deficit needs to be cut at this point in time; 2. That the normal processes of credit creation out of nothing which come into play when an individual takes out a loan from a bank cannot be utilised in the wider economy for productive purposes.

    It’s a shame more Liberal Democrat MPs (or any!) didn’t attend the debate on the creation of money held in Parliament on November 20th.

  • Local government worked well up to 1939 , when many councilors were skilled craftsmen , engineers and business men. Many companies were locally owned and the owners invested in local amenities, Many of the towns owned their own water, gas and electricity companies. As local ratepayers paid for the services , they had interest in making sure value for money was delivered . The Heath Reforms of 1974 and the creation of metropolitan counties from town boroughs meant many of the locally skilled people no longer had the time to commute to meetings. An example would be flooding and poor ground conditions; local people knew not build o these locations due to the problems.

    The Inst of Civil Engineers was based at George St , near Parliament because many engineers were MPs and the government could call on their advice. An example of the type of MP who no longer exists was the Liberal Murdo MacDonald , a civil engineer who was a colonel in the RE in Egypt in WW1. Macdonald designed railways around Inverness, worked on the Aswan Dam and irrigation projects in the Indus Valley. I knew of a senior foreman from a top construction company who have up being a councilor because in his words ” In the meetings they spend 2 hours waffling on a subject , when I could make the decision in 2 minutes”. In the same authority , the chairman of the transport committee was someone who operated a car park and because of this believed he had an understanding of transport , yet the system resulted in a foreman who was involved in building motorways and bridges giving up local politics!

    When it comes to economic development I have told by a LA official that the strategy of SEEDA was irrelevant for their district.

    If we wish to improve local government , we must make sure there are enough competent people. When corruption occurs it often involves in third rate firms winning the work : experienced politicians would be able to recognise the poor companies. The LAs often lack engineering expertise but county councils often have it: it would be sensible if counties offered engineering expertise to the former. Flooding and poor ground conditions are often areas where LAs lack the engineering expertise ( Chartered Civil Engineers ). The danger is that the new development could replicate the mistakes of the mid 50s to the 80s .

    If one looks at companies who are successfully delivering more with less, many LAs could learn from them.

  • Rabi Martins is a very experienced and valued local councillor elected and re-elected by people in his area.
    What a shame that the leadership of the party have failed to listen to experienced Liberal Democrat councillors like Rabi over the last seven years.

    Rabi rightly asks of Clegg and Alexander —
    “..Surely even they know that a system in which demand and costs are going up and funding is going down is unsustainable.
    Do they not realise that as every local authority in the country grapples with spending pressures because demand for their services have going up, giving them less money to deliver essential services will result in rationing and pile more misery on those least able to shoulder them?
    Or do they simply not care ?”

    It is impossible as an ordinary party member to know if they really care or not. Whatever they think, we can only really judge them on their actions and what they say.
    The actions of Clegg and Alexander in “co-authoring” the autumn statement with the implicit drastic cuts in local council spending and support for the poor seems to show that they do not care.
    For the last four years and eight months they have been advised by some of the best civil servants in the world, so they cannot be ignorant of the consequences of these cuts of which they are the “co-authors”.
    They will have had briefings explaining to them in words of one syllable that — as Rabi puts it –“..giving them less money to deliver essential services will result in rationing and pile more misery on those least able to shoulder them? ”

    Whilst the leadership talk about a “Fairer Society” they will have been very clearly warned that the consequences of the autumn statement that they have “co-authored” will be a much less fair society for the 13 million people wo love in poverty (see Rowntree report).

    Perhaps the party slogan should be changed to “Stranger Economy, Food-Bank Society” ?

  • Matthew Huntbach 8th Dec '14 - 12:46pm

    Joe Otten

    you still have this problem: Health, education, police, defence, welfare, transport, foreign aid, etc, etc, etc all have a case to make that they need this extra tax money you’ve chosen to raise more than local government does.

    The general public has this problem. They must say what the priorities must be, and if they want more spent, how the money is to be raised to spend it. If not, then what they would accept being cut to pay for it.

    In order to make this decision, the general public need to be given honest information from politicians about needs and costs, what it costs to provide the sort of things they want, what can be raised by various forms of taxation. Sad to say, the general public are NOT being given honest information. So they tend to believe the political right when the political right goes on about tax being bad, and what a good thing it is that they have cut taxes, and how rotten government and politicians are when they make people pay taxes, and just waves it hands around a bit when it comes to how we are to pay for the things that people say they want. And they tend to believe the political left when the political left goes on about how bad spending cuts are, and how it would be better if there were so much more in terms of government services, and how rotten government and politicians are for making these cuts, and just waves it hands around a bit when it comes to how we are to pay for the things that people say they want.

    The combined effect of this is that people think all government and politicians are rotten, and they are especially rotten for not repealing the laws of arithmetic. This tends to be of more benefit to the political right who play on the “government and politicians are bad” line to justify running down state services and handing things over to control by private businessmen. I blame the political left for this more than the political right, because the political left have not made a coherent case for higher taxation and worked to win over people’s support for it by explaining it is necessary if we are to have the services that people say they want e.g. a NHS which doesn’t send you bills and covers all reasonable health care, fully subsidised university tuition, no-one starving in the streets, etc.

  • Matthew Huntbach 8th Dec '14 - 12:54pm

    Jenny Barnes

    and £100 billion of the Tridenty waving budget.

    Then listen to the howling opposition to that – unfortunately, abolishing Trident is still very much a vote-loser.

    Probably by purchasing agricultural land at a small premium to agricultural land cost, allocating planning permission post purchase, and selling off some of that land to developers with the residential planning permission.

    Then listen to the howling opposition to that – have you ever TRIED defending a large-scale new build project in the face of the inevitable opposition to people living in the place?

    In london, build over carparks

    Er, have you ever tried to find parking space in London recently? There’s howls about there not being enough of it.

    Having had some recent experience in the NHS, I suspect the amount of enforced paperwork could be reduced, without significantly reducing the quality of patient experience.

    Until someone makes a mistake that did not get spotted because it wasn’t documented, and the Daily Mail leads the why-oh-why howls of anguish over why this happened (to which the answer is “Because you called all that stuff ‘red tape’ and said it should be abolished”).

  • Matthew Huntbach
    Suggestions on building more homes
    1. Reduce much of conland legislations in urban area, especially where edible plants are not going to be grown.
    2. Look at off site construction of flats-plant rooms, bathrooms and kitchens can be built in pods and installed on site.
    3. Build flats over public buildings, supermarkets, doctors surgery.
    4. Build better quality flats with struct rules which are enforced , on conduct.
    5. Look at what CPRE , ARUP, Laing O’Rourke, WSP and Cambridge U are doing to increase building in urban areas. Building in greenfield areas is often the easy and less technically difficult option.

  • @ Simon McGrath – So what should we cut instead ?

    Trident. 100 billion saved right there.

  • Simon McGrath 8th Dec '14 - 5:00pm

    @Gareth – trident isnt in the forecasts though .

  • Simon McGrath 8th Dec ’14 – 5:00pm
    – trident isnt in the forecasts though .

    Simon, I may be wrong on this. But I assume that unless Trident has been taken out of forecast expenditure, it is still there.
    As far as I am aware Trident has never been taken out of government accounts.

    I believe that replacement of Trident is also in there.
    Under the Coalition fudge there has been some shuffling of feet and obfuscation about start dates for the replacement, but someone on BBC Radio a couple of days ago mentioned that £15 million was being spent this year on some elements of equipment for the replacement of Trident on the expectation at it would go ahead.

    If I was not listening closely enough and have go the wrong end of the stick I apologise.

    If I am wrong in my assumptions, please put me right.

  • SIMON BANKS 9th Dec '14 - 10:49am

    Well said, Rabi. As for the question of where cuts should fall, there’s a simple point. Local government has suffered more than national and if the Tories have their way will continue to do. There was never any justification for that, since many local government services, especially to vulnerable older people, are experiencing long-term increase in demand and need above the rate of population increase. Why has this been done? Because it looked like a soft target, because the responsible minister is despicably irresponsible and because the Liberal Democrat leadership has nodded it through, no doubt because Nick Clegg and those around him know little of local government and care little. There may even be an idea amongst the Osbornes, Patersons, Brownes and Tory New Right that continuing to squeeze unpopular local government will make it more inadequate, hence more unpopular, and they can get rid of the wretched thing called local democracy.

    In contrast, I believe Cameron meant what he said both about localism and about “the Big Society”. But he hadn’t thought it through and in particular, hadn’t adjusted his ideas to the reality of economic collapse and the demands for austerity. When the crunch came, he needed Liberal stiffening and didn’t get it. So the Big Society became outsourced services on the cheap and localism became, “Here are a few new powers, but you won’t have any money to do anything about them”.

    In the coming general election, Liberal Democrats must stand up for local government and continue to do so with un-Clegg-like toughness in any post-election discussions, or it’ll be too late. To fail in this would be a deep betrayal of Liberalism.

  • Neil Sandison 9th Dec '14 - 10:51am

    Charlie
    Blanket solutions are never the right answer .Agricultural land is graded .grade 4 is the least productive but may have higher levels of biodiversity .grade 2 is the most productive but is likely to have human food and animal feed grown in a monoculture .releasing any fordevel;opment will remain the last resort for any planning authority .And yes there are significant amounts of brown /green sites still available land banked by the developers going for the easy option of greenfield by argueing we dont have a ready 5 year land supply even thougth the are sitting on hectares of brownfield

  • Rabi Martins 9th Dec '14 - 11:53am

    I agree with Neil Sandison – “Blanket solutions are never the right answer”
    But that is what you get when government takes to itself powers that should rightly remain with Local Councils
    The promise to give Manchester and one or two other cities more powers is welcome but that is not “Transferring power away from Westminster and Whitehall and retruning it to the people” as stated in the Pre-Manifesto document It is at best tinkering with devolution . If we mean what that statment says that loal government has to be be given real powers to raise and spend money locally as it sees best. Whatever happened to the Liberal Democrats Local Tax policy ? Bringing it back would show a true intent to enpower local people .
    Allow Local Councils to shape their towns and cities that means Revoke Permitted Development Rights Make it easier for councils to introduce Article 4 Directives
    @Simon Mcgrath and others who ask where the cuts should fall if not on local government I say this.
    Start with government departments that serve the ministers and the administration Value for money should be measured in terms of service delivery to the members of th epublic not the lifestyle of the politicians. For example as far as I can tell special advisors to ministers do little deliver services to the public becuase their sole role seems to be to produce sound bites for ministers

  • Simon McGrath 9th Dec '14 - 12:05pm

    Rabi “@Simon Mcgrath and others who ask where the cuts should fall if not on local government I say this.
    Start with government departments that serve the ministers and the administration Value for money should be measured in terms of service delivery to the members of th epublic not the lifestyle of the politicians. For example as far as I can tell special advisors to ministers do little deliver services to the public becuase their sole role seems to be to produce sound bites for ministers”
    Ok so we fire all the SPADs – let say that saves £20m. Where will all the other savings come from ?

  • David Evans 9th Dec '14 - 12:10pm

    Simon McGrath – Do you have any ideas for cuts of your own, or do you just ask everyone else what they would do?

  • Blanket solutions are never the right answer

    All generalisations are wrong.

  • Matthew Huntbach 9th Dec '14 - 8:31pm

    SIMON BANKS

    In contrast, I believe Cameron meant what he said both about localism and about “the Big Society”.

    No, he hadn’t a clue. He had no idea how the sort of community minded attitude that involves has been killed of by the sort of dog-eat-dog attitude he and his party encourage and say life should be all about.

    Who can afford to get involved in “Big Society”, when in the name of “efficiency” we are all supposed to be running scared of losing our jobs if we don’t work in them until we are too exhausted to do anything else? We are all meant to be driven by targets and league tables and the competition beating us and us losing our livelihoods if we relax and do other things and just let the paid work tick by. So we don’t do that any more. As everyone says “No-one has time to do that sort of thing any more”. If you’re stonkingly rich like Cameron, and have all the right connections and so on, so losing your job is not a big fear, maybe it’s different. But that’s the problem – he doesn’t realise most people aren’t like him.

  • R Uduwerage-Perera 10th Dec '14 - 9:15pm

    Rabi,

    Well said!

    We are one of the wealthiest countries on the planet, yet we are seeking to increase the already unreasonable burden upon the most vulnerable within society.

    As for what to cut, well John Tilley has ‘hit the nail not the head’ as to what to cut – Trident is simply unnecessary!

    Why not also reform the police service, by removing the Police and Crime Commissioners and introduce a National Police Service, which will overnight streamline the service and reduce the need for 43 HR, Training, and other common Departments, plus reduce the number of senior managers, most of whom do not fulfill a necessary operational role.

    Thinking back to the late 1990’s and the introduction of the ‘Best Value’ regime, there are many ways to reduce costs, and actually increase the effectiveness and efficiency of public sector organisations. Local Government working directly with the Police Sevice and other public sector organisations could come up with many savings and improvements, but alas the desire to maintain ’empires’ means that the public do not necessarily end up benefitting from improved services.

  • peter tyzack 15th Dec '14 - 1:10pm

    Matt.. ‘chuddy’ is (was at my school) chewing gum, so ‘chuddered’ must be a descriptive word of the state of the pavements and the underside of school desks…

  • matt (Bristol) 15th Dec '14 - 1:33pm

    Ah, so in this context, it could mean ‘I congealed and solidified into something unpleasant, unhealthy and unsightly’.

    Thankyou for this lexical assistance, Peter.

  • matt (Bristol) 15th Dec '14 - 2:31pm

    R Uduwerage-Perera – I do not think a national police service (or even an English Polic Service) is a liberal measure and I would back a million miles off any party that proposed such a thing, most particularly if it was purely on the grounds of cost.

  • Richard Underhill 13th Aug '15 - 3:38pm

    Marty Feldman wanted to go the Edinburgh Festival, but it was in Edinburgh, so he wanted a local one.
    He had a point . There is now a Leeds Piano Festival in Leeds and a Cardiff Singer of the World in Cardiff.

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GlPAVm8Gl6M
    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Leeds_International_Piano_Competition
    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/BBC_Cardiff_Singer_of_the_World_competition

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