Mark Wallace of the Taxpayers Alliance says those elected on Thursday should deliver radical change – not wait for a General Election.
This week’s local elections are a crucial event, that newly elected councillors and new local administrations must use to their full effect. Reading some of the coverage of the elections, it seems sometimes as if their only function is to act as a massive, pre-general election opinion poll. Whilst they will undoubtedly be useful for predicting the future Parliamentary result, that is far from their only purpose.
Obviously, any local election has importance in terms of either changing or confirming who runs a particular authority. However, this election comes at such a strategically crucial time that it offers the victors a rare opportunity to have a huge influence over future local government policy and powers.
For a start, there is a general election coming up – in 12 months’ time at the latest. That means that the winners on June 4th will have the most recent electoral mandate before the election. They not only have a stronger mandate to lead than Gordon Brown (who doesn’t?) but they have a fresher mandate than the Government as a whole, particularly on local government policy.
Furthermore, the Government – and Parliament as a whole – is weak at the moment. The Government has low approval ratings, has suffered bungle after bungle and often seems to lack confidence and backbench support for even its own flagship policies. The other main parties are not much stronger. Both have been caught up in their own MPs’ expenses scandals and the wholesale loss of faith in Parliamentarians generally means that politicians in Westminster of all stripes are grabbing at any and every opportunity to demonstrate their connection to real people and the real world.
Those two factors offer local politicians an opportunity to seize the initative. After Thursday they will have a refreshed right to be bold and radical, and given the recent Parliamentary scandals they have an audience in Westminster who are desperate to show their willingness to listen.
The action councils can take are two-fold. First, there are policies they can simply implement themselves in order to set an example to central government. Then there are changes to the way local government is run that they may only be able to call for due to legal restrictions.
Here are a few policies that councils would do well to implement straight away:
Local Transparency: George Osborne has promised “Google Government” publication of vast tracts of public spending information, but there’s no reason why councils should wait until after a General Election to bring this in locally. Windsor and Maidenhead Council have already done it.
National Transparency: While councils have far too little power of the budgets and policies administered by different quangos and central agencies in their locality, they could exert an influence over them simply through publishing what information they do have. As mentioned above, the Government is weak and the public are keen for information – if councils can publish data on what central government is actually doing with taxpayers’ money then they could make a real difference.
Police Authority Elections: The Government abandoned its plans for accountable police authorities, leaving the appointment of councillor members in the hands of councils but still distant from the people. Why not stage instructive elections so the local populace could have their say? If the Government aren’t willing to give the people binding power over police authorities, there is nothing to stop councils gathering the public’s opinion in a non-binding but extremely compelling way.
There are other, structural changes to local government administration which only the Government controls. For these, councils can only lobby and campaign for change. That would still be compelling in the current political climate. It is high time, for example, that councillors started making the case for reform of the Local Government Pension Scheme, the huge costs of which place a stranglehold on many councils’ budgets.
Councillors rightly complain – when pressed – that central government imposes large costs and myriad policies on them without their agreement. It is an unfair situation, but one which for far too long has been aided by near-silence from town halls, at least publicly. Now is the perfect time for an activist, vocal movement of local councillors to speak up for reform. Westminster and Whitehall have rarely been so weak, and so vulnerable to such a drive.