Greg Clark is Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, and MP for Tunbridge Wells.
Why bother voting in the local elections today? I could give you a list of sound reasons to vote Conservative – and I will, of course – but first, let’s consider why turn-out in local polls has been consistently lower than that for general elections – and then why it ought to be higher in future.
It’s partly been a function of how over-centralised the British state had become in the 20th century.
That’s not to say that councils don’t provide important – vital – services; of course they do. Care for the elderly and children, the collection of refuse, public health, leisure facilities…all these and a lot more are under the direct management or are the accountability of your council.
But until recently most of the cost of these services has been paid for by central government.
When David Cameron became Prime Minister in 2010, nearly 80 per cent of the money spent by local authorities came to them in the form of that government grant. It’s simply not possible for a body to be four-fifths financially dependent on Whitehall and it not have an impact on its behaviour.
In the past, that financial dependence was reinforced by the endless micromanagement of local government by central government, through targets and frameworks, regulation and inspection.
So even if they weren’t aware of the precise extent to which their council’s finances were dependent on Westminster grants, many voters sensed nevertheless that the composition of the council mattered a lot less than the composition of the Westminster Parliament.
This Government has been changing that: since April 2013, councils have been able to keep 50 per cent of the growth in their business rates. For the first time, they have had a direct incentive in building their local economy, with the direct benefits (more employment in your area) and indirect benefits (more money for your council to develop its long-term strategy) which flow from such an incentive.
This Government believes councils and local communities, who know their local areas best, should have more control over the decisions that affect them and that’s why we’re working to put power and resources back into the hands of local people.
That’s why we made the preparation and adoption of local plans for housing and development a locally-owned endeavour, driven by a whole community and its councillors. That policy has worked: house-building is on the up again – in areas where local people want to see it – from dropping to a point of near extinction under Labour.
And now we are going further. By 2020 we will have devolved 100 per cent of business rates income to councils. Instead of the current inefficient recycling process – business rates come into Whitehall, and then are parcelled up and sent back to councils as a grant – councils will keep the money that is raised locally, through business as well as council taxes.
This is a huge shift. Your council will no longer be responsible only for spending money; it will be responsible for growing its income too. This is real devolution and is accompanied by the devolution of significant decision-making power to those areas ready to assume them.
That puts a premium on the election of a business-friendly council – because more business will mean more income for your council.
So think carefully before voting. Which party is most likely to attract new business, and encourage existing ones to expand? And which party is most likely to spend the money it raises wisely, for the benefit of the whole community?
Even in normal times, the answer to those questions must be: “The Conservative Party”. Conservative-led councils charge an average of £80 a year less council tax than do Labour-led ones; £110 a year less than Liberal Democrats. At the same time, Conservative councils deliver quality services.
But these aren’t normal times: the Labour Party is in disarray. Whatever else might be said of Jeremy Corbyn’s hard left views, his party is less comfortable with business growth and with representing the whole community than at any time in recent memory – as the failure to get a grip of the outbreak of anti-semitism has laid bare.
It’s my opinion that the country can’t afford a Labour government; neither economically, nor in terms of bringing our communities together.
And it’s my opinion that you can’t afford to elect a Labour council today either. The well-being of your community depends on the services your council delivers, and on an enterprise-friendly council to encourage business growth.
Conservative councils can be trusted to achieve high quality local services while offering value for money; One Nation Conservatives, occupying the common ground, can be trusted to govern for the benefit of your entire community.
As we devolve more power and resources from central government to local councils, I hope more and more people will see voting for their council as a vitally important choice in determining the future direction for their community.