Here’s something we can
learn from Europe. How you vote in a local election on the Continent
still matters. It determines tangible things, such as how much tax
you pay, where houses get built and how many policemen patrol your
street. In Britain, alas, it does none of these things.
The weakness of our councils can be
inferred from the statistics. In the EU as a whole, local authorities
raise 55 per cent of their revenue. In Britain, that figure is 25 per
cent. The only EU state with a lower proportion is Malta which is, to
all intents and purposes, a single extended conurbation.
Hardly surprising, then, that two
thirds of registered voters stay at home on the day. On a narrow
cost/benefit analysis—the effort of casting your ballot versus
any meaningful consequential change in your life—it is the
abstainer who is behaving rationally.
The absence of fiscal autonomy is
good news for the Left. As long as there is no link between taxation,
representation and expenditure, inept Labour councils are protected
from the consequences of their mismanagement. The more deprivation
they create, the more money they attract, the more people become
dependent on that money and the likelier they are to vote Labour.
Many Labour councils employ officers to encourage people to take up
their entitlements, and thus begin the journey towards dependency.
Conversely, there is limited advantage in cutting spending, since a
40 per cent reduction in expenditure leads to only a 10 per cent
reduction in council tax.
How to solve the problem? In The
Plan: Twelve months to renew Britain, Douglas Carswell
and I propose a way to make local councils almost wholly
self-financing. We hit on a happy coincidence: the amount raised by
the Treasury through VAT is exactly the same as the amount paid to
local authorities (£84 billion in 2007-08). No party can go
into an election simply proposing an additional new tax. So we
propose replacing VAT with a Local Sales Tax, with a rate that would
vary from county to county.
LST has several advantages: first, we
all pay it, because we all buy things, so there would be very few
voters with a perverse incentive to vote for high-spending councils.
It would also bring tax competition between different jurisdictions.
These two factors taken together would give us something never known
before in Britain: downward pressure on rates.
But fiscal autonomy is just the first
step. We should also give local councils meaningful operational
autonomy. English counties and cities should have the powers which,
under the 1998 Scotland Act, were devolved to the Edinburgh
Parliament. (This would, incidentally, solve the West Lothian
Question at a stroke: all Westminster MPs would then have equivalent
responsibilities.) We’d also make local councils responsible
for the relief of poverty: something which was, for 400 years between
the dissolution of the monasteries and the Asquith-Lloyd George
reforms, a local prerogative in England and Wales. And we’d
have locally elected Sheriffs who would not only run the police, but
also take over from the CPS and set local sentencing guidelines. To
see how all this and more could be done in just one year, buy
In a sense, though, the specific
policies matter less than the idea that infuses them, namely that
decisions should be made as closely as possible to the people they
affect. Localism brings the advantages of proximity, accountability,
efficiency and, not least pluralism: new ideas can be trialled and,
if successful copied elsewhere.
In the rest of the world, such
pluralism is taken for granted. Almost every idea adopted at federal
level in the US—from workfare to “three strikes and
you’re out”—began life at state level. The same
used to be true here. The single most popular reform of the last
Conservative Government was initiated first by Tory councillors: I
speak, of course, of council house sales. Nowadays, when Whitehall
lays down exactly how local authorities must spend their budgets, and
when elected representatives have lost ground to permanent
functionaries, such innovations are unthinkable.
They shouldn’t be, my friends.
I refuse to believe that we are uniquely unqualified for democracy.
We got the whole thing going, for Heaven’s sake. The notion
that state officials should be answerable to the rest of us was
Britain’s chief export, our supreme contribution to the
happiness of mankind. Our fathers carried the seeds of that idea to
far continents, where they found fertile soil. But here in these
islands, the ancestral tree is withering. It is time, in Jonathan
Freedland’s phrase, to bring home the revolution.
Daniel Hannan blogs every day