William Hall is the Policy Lead for Conservative Friends of the Armed Forces. He is Deputy Chairman of Oxfordshire Conservatives and works in UK defence, infrastructure and education.
Councils do far more than many people give them credit for. The day-to-day life experience of many citizens is heavily influenced by how effective the local authority is. Regular bin collections help keep streets tidy and clean. An effective housing department will put a roof over people’s heads. Well-maintained roads are a daily essential. Critically, adult social care allows people to live independently for longer.
For many people, their closest daily experience of the effect of political dynamics is about how effectively their local authority delivers its core responsibilities. However, instead of focussing on this, increasingly, many Councillors are spending their time proposing motions on subjects removed from the Council’s responsibilities with the intention of a quick press release.
A newly elected set of councillors taking charge of a local authority have only so much bandwidth to achieve their priority goals. The challenging and important objectives of delivering excellent key services with value for money often get ignored for the easy to reach, meaningless political gesture politics of the student union.
In Oxfordshire, our Lib Dem-led County Council has been making headlines recently by adopting a policy of having only vegan food served at their meetings.
Understandably, local farmers objected to what they viewed as a needless attack. A protest was held, and the Council spent considerable time and energy on defending their position.
The reality is that the motion only relates to the food the councillors themselves get at the expense of the taxpayer – they clearly shouldn’t get a free lunch, but that’s another discussion. The Council has absolutely no competency to force anyone else to eat a certain way. Particularly ridiculous was the fact that the “environmentally friendly” spread included imported fruit such as melon, mango, and kiwi.
So, at a time when roads are crumbling and communities need support, the Council is spending its time and energy on virtue signalling. In one fell swoop, an entire community of farmers, butchers, and small businesses, have been alienated from their local representation for nothing more than a gesture by the Council.
If I were a Green Party Councillor in Oxfordshire, I would be kicking my sandals in disgust at how an important environmental debate has been side-lined by an attempt to grab a quick headline by the administration.
The waste of political capital alone is bad enough, but it also costs taxpayers money. Local authorities in England collectively spent £106 billion last year – a big slice of state spending and in many areas Council Tax continues to rise. While local authorities spend most of this on ringfenced education services, and adult and children’s social care, that leaves a considerable amount of taxpayer’s money that is discretionary.
In my own time as the Finance Cabinet member for a local authority, we focused our financial measures on the absolutely core services that made a difference – areas like planning enforcement, bin collection, and those small but critical grants that keep local community groups going. We also managed to deliver one of the biggest Council tax cuts in the country. All of these measures required significant political will to overcome officers’ desire for incremental, rather than transformational, change.
We did all this because we recognised that delivery matters more than gestures. It would have been impossible to have done so, had we opened up multiple lines of policy reform based on short term PR rather than securing a strategic transformation based on the plan we were elected on.
Next month, much of the country will decide on its next crop of local Councillors. In England, some 4,360 seats are up for election. It is crucial that in doing so we get a good cadre of hard-working local representatives who are willing to tackle the complex issues and not just the popular ones.
If all our councillors spent their time writing press releases about how worthy they are, then who would be left to drive forward those much-needed reforms to vital services?