Andrew Carter: Devolving responsibilities to our town halls must also mean devolving money

22 Sep

Andrew Carter is Chief Executive of Centre for Cities, who have published a new report Levelling Up Local Government in England

Last year, the Conservative election manifesto pledged to deliver a system of full English devolution and, as I understand it, the Government is now finalising these plans in a white paper due to be published this autumn.

Reform of England’s complicated local government structures is long overdue. There are currently 349 district, county, unitary, and combined authorities in England, as well as the Greater London Authority, many with overlapping responsibilities and competing interests.

Nottingham, for example, has nine separate councils, all with responsibilities for local planning and economic development in their part of the city. The seven district councils have responsibility for new housing, but then the two county councils are charged with delivering the transport infrastructure that new homes need. This bureaucratic arrangement makes joined-up long-term strategic decision making about Nottingham’s future much more difficult than it needs to be.

Additionally, many smaller district councils have neither the capacity nor the political will to deliver the large-scale housing and infrastructure projects needed to level up their areas, and the financial challenges of maintaining this patchwork system are increasing every year.

But the problems in English local government are about more than just function and finance. There is also a democratic deficit, with little public awareness or understanding of councils’ roles. Back in 2012, just eight per cent of people could name their local council leader, and I doubt this figure has improved much since then.

And a system in which a council leader is also a local ward councillor directly answerable to only to a tiny electorate makes it difficult for them to balance their voters’ priorities with their duty to the wider area. This means that hyper-local issues can crowd out the long-term planning and investment that an area needs.

The current system is the product of decades of political compromise and piecemeal reform, but it’s having a damaging effect on the places that the Prime Minister has promised to level up, many of which have been hit harder economically by the Covid-19 pandemic than more affluent areas. We can’t keep tinkering around the edges – only wholescale reform will work now.

First, England’s existing 349 councils should be reduced down to 69 new, larger unitary and combined authorities that mirror as much as possible the economic areas in which people live and work. This would make joined-up strategic decision-making far easier.

When I make this argument, people often stress the importance of ensuring that historic or cultural boundaries are reflected in local government. I have two points to make on this: First, civic identity is not determined by local authority boundaries; it is possible to celebrate civic identity while having council boundaries that reflect the area over which people live and work.  And second, as our proposals show, it is possible to create a new system that aligns political and economic geography whilst respecting existing historic county boundaries.

Second, the leader-and-cabinet model for local government should be scrapped and the 69 new authorities should be headed by a directly-elected political figure. In cities and large towns they should be called a mayor, in rural areas they could have a more appropriate name. But whatever they are called they should be given the mandate, powers, and resources to improve the lives of people living and in working in them.

Responsibility for key areas of the levelling up agenda such as housing delivery, infrastructure, management of public transport, and adult education provision should all be moved out of Whitehall and put in the hands of the new leaders and their authorities.  The relevant government departments – Business, Transport, Education – could then be shrunk to reflect their smaller roles and the Ministry for Housing, Communities and Local Government could be transformed into an England Office similar to the Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland Offices and, like in the devolved nations, be given responsibility for managing England’s devolution deals.

This simpler system, with a directly elected political leader, will begin to address the lack of public engagement in local politics. Though less than one in ten people nationally can name their council leader, in the Tees Valley, 40 per cent of people know the directly elected Conservative mayor, Ben Houchan, and they can name a policy achievement of his.

But it would be disingenuous to restructure local government and give it extra powers and responsibilities, without also providing it with the funding it needs to make good on these extra responsibilities. Devolving control over how local business rates, council tax, and charges are raised and spent, and giving greater discretion to councils on how they manage their budgets would give them the freedom and incentives they need to drive forward improvements in their areas – and would be a welcome relief after a decade of local government austerity.

Opponents of what I’m proposing will tell you that, despite its flaws, the current system works; and perhaps on a purely functional day-to-day level it does. But we should be asking ourselves what we want from local government in the future, particularly in light of the Covid-19 crisis.  Should it just be emptying bins and collecting library fines? Or should it be applying its deep understanding of England’s cities, towns, and counties to deliver the levelling up agenda? I would argue it’s the latter, and I hope that ministers writing the devolution white paper, agree with me.

John Fuller: This pandemic has shown that bigger local government does not mean better local government

14 Sep

Cllr John Fuller OBE is the Leader of South Norfolk District Council and the Chairman of the District Councils’ Network

The opportunity to take back control drove millions to the ballot box in June 2016. The country voted to take back greater powers to shape their own destiny, and against remote elite and expensive bureaucracies that take decisions to constrain our lives in ways that are hard to influence.

It doesn’t just apply to Europe: English local government is already the largest and most remote in the western world, with voters already the least well represented.

Yet the lessons of the pandemic have proved again what is fact: bigger local government is not better local government. While national command and control sometimes stumbled, our local district councils ensured that individuals, families, and businesses could keep calm and carry on.

In streets up and down our country, it was the local district council that ensured every fridge was filled, every bin collected, every evicted sofa-surfer had a roof placed over their head, and every small business had the financial help and regulatory forbearance to adapt and pivot towards a new normal.

And we were able to do this because we have the local connection, the local accountability, and the local knowledge, to customise our approach, one family at a time, one street at a time, and one place at a time.

Your local district and smaller unitary councils represent our market towns, our cathedral cities, coastal communities, new towns, and the countryside, across 60 per cent of England. Our agility at street level allowed national government to focus on the big issues whilst safe in the knowledge that the final mile was cared for.

But what’s this?

In the last few weeks there is a small group of people clamouring to put all of this at risk. Astonishingly, Conservative county councils are making the case for turning their backs on learning the lessons on what worked best in the depths of our Covid despair.  They are proposing to dismantle the final mile that delivers bespoke solutions for residents in every corner of our country.

They seek to recast local government into just two dozen county-based unitary councils in a reckless race to the bottom on cheapness. It is nothing less than putting their own organisations’ survival ahead of the best interests of residents and business – and will hamper our ability to grow the national economy, one local economy at a time.

Replacing nearly 200 predominantly Conservative authorities with just 25 county unitaries where control is much more finely balanced would be a suicide mission that would put see our associations and councillor base emasculated and take the voters even further away from those who represent us.

In so doing it, would destroy the local campaigning base of the Conservative Party and leave us at a structural disadvantage against Labour’s metropolitan heartlands who would remain unmolested.

The county councils’ plans would condemn Conservative local government to permanent opposition in the Local Government Association and all the other representative bodies that control nearly a third of public expenditure.

And with 33 councils in London and just 25 in the rest of shire England, what does that say about levelling up? It is already more difficult to get Conservatives elected on the bottom rung of our democracy. In the typical Labour-run London Borough or city-based metropolitan council, it takes about 3,000 electors for a Labour candidate to win. In our county councils, in Kent, Essex and Hampshire that number is 15,000. Labour enjoys a five-times electoral advantage over us. We should be challenging this arithmetic, not reinforcing it.

But it’s worse than that. Labour councils tend to be smaller: 50-60 seats, whereas Conservative counties often comprise 80 councillors or more. So it’s also easier for those councillors of other parties to become council leaders and thus play a leading role in national policy formation.

In the mid-2000s, our leader in local government, Sandy Bruce Lockhart, and the Leader of Kent County Council, cautioned us against conniving with Labour to decimate the Party in the Shires. How ironic that we now have Conservative collaborators pushing something that even Hazel Blears as Labour’s Secretary of State dared not deliver.

Now is the time for us to focus on recovery not reorganisation. Our government’s Devolution and Recovery White Paper must recognise that a council isn’t just a transactional entity. A council has the responsibility to exceed the aspirations of residents and business, recognising and celebrating the differences in our county, not centralising with an identikit approach.

We should be devolving down even more to those organisations like our district and small unitary councils who shone when the Covid chips were down; not using it as an excuse to centralise into distant mega-bureaucracies with a ‘Computer Says No’ attitude, that are so removed from street level that they are unable to connect with the towns and cities across their sprawling landscapes.

Making an argument for cheapness is a dismal one that cannot inspire anyone. The Conservative Party stands for aspiration and efficient services that they can be shaped locally, not cheap ones they can’t. We stand against centralisation rather than devolution. We stand for shaping shared prosperity at street level to build homes, infrastructure funding, and employment to deliver true levelling up for all.

So let’s have a pattern of local government that looks forward to the needs of 2066 rather than being bogged down by boundaries laid down in 1066.

That’s not just a statement of common sense. It’s also an aspirational one which allows the Conservative Party the best chance to shape the future in every corner of our land. Let’s celebrate our historical county boundaries, but not get tripped up by them.

Gareth Lyon: In defence of district councils

3 Sep

Gareth Lyon is a former councillor in Rushmoor and the Chairman of the Aldershot and North Hants Conservative Association.

We are now approaching the inevitable and tragic culmination of efforts to undermine District Councils.

At this stage, to have the opportunity to extol the good that borough and district councils do, feels more like being given the opportunity to bury, rather than to praise them.

It is increasingly regarded as an open secret that the Government sees the future of local government as lying in massive county-wide unitary councils, possibly supplemented by a patchwork of parish councils.

This outcome will come as no surprise to those of us who have followed closely the treatment of district and borough councils over recent decades.

Whist there surely has not been a deliberate strategy to systematically undermine district councils and prevent them from functioning as effectively as they can, it is sometimes hard to discern how such a strategy would manifest itself differently from the effects of the cruel and negligent treatment of this tier of councils by successive Governments.

By way of context, the UK is already something of an outlier in Europe in terms of the average size of the lowest tier of local government, its funding and its powers. France, Spain and Germany in particular, entrust far more responsibility to bodies equal to, or smaller, in size than English district and borough councils.

Yet district and borough councils are a very prominent feature of local political life in the UK, and almost always the arrangement of responsibilities means that they are on a hiding to nothing.

Taking Council Tax as an example. Being a tax which must specifically be paid as opposed to being deducted automatically like PAYE or NI it is consistently amongst the most noticed and most hated taxes in the country.

It is well known that your local council will arrange collection of this (and other understandably unpopular taxes like business rates); what is less well understood is how little of this tax is actually collected for the district/borough itself to use.

Indeed, many districts and boroughs I know are obliged to hand over more than 90 per cent of what they collect to other less local and less accessible authorities, such as the county council, fire service, or Police and Crime Commissioner.

This may seem like a small point but it should not be underestimated how much responsibility people will ascribe to the authority whose headed notepaper they receive their tax demand on.

In many cases, district and borough councils have managed to freeze or reduce their Council Tax charge without this even being noticed by their electorate as it is more than cancelled out by substantial increases from other authorities.

This leaves districts and boroughs as the unloved collectors of money due to others while having no say in its spend.

The situation is, if anything, even wore on Business Rates. This absurd tax is divided between the various tiers of Government, with councils facing tax revenues being “clawed back” by central Government if they succeed in fostering local businesses, boosting economic activity, and ultimately receipts by too much… yet facing the full force of economic headwinds if substantial local businesses get into trouble, relocate, or downsize.

This awkward position, of being consistently in the frame for decisions which are made elsewhere and imposed locally – with districts and borough as the most accessible and identifiable local representation taking the blame is now established in almost every area of council activity.

In key competencies such as planning and development and licensing, councils room for manoeuvre has been strictly limited for some time – with central Government and an army of unaccountable and remote inspectors being able to overrule decisions at the drop of a hat.

Over recent years though this has extended into many new areas by the back door – local councils are responsible for attracting and fostering local businesses, except that all the decisions about key infrastructure to support businesses are made at a regional or national level.

Local councils usually have responsibility for parking, except that county councils have the ability to use the trump card of responsibility for highways to effectively dictate policy – along of course with the Government’s green agenda balancing the scales further against car users.

Councils have responsibility for recycling and numerous environmental matters – but the heavy hand of central Government is starting to fall here too – often with no appreciation for local factors or demographics.

With these and dozens of other wounds being administered to the body of district and borough councils it could be argued that the Government may be considering the right thing in handing everything over to vast unitary authorities – even if they may have been a party to the assassination.

Yet this is to ignore the fact that it is much easier for most people to get to know their local councillor and to raise issues with them. It is to ignore the fact that there are massive differences between Aldershot at one end of Hampshire and the New Forest on the other – and that local identities matter in politics.

Ultimately there is a risk that the Government ignores the wishes of local people to have the power to make more of the political decisions which affect their lives.

One could even argue that it is time for those driving such thinking to get out London and meet some people who are not centralising special advisors…