The Conservative leader David Cameron gave an excellent speech at the LGA Conference yesterday telling local councils what they could expect from a Conservative Government. He said the good news was they would have "a lot more power." The bad news was "there won't be a lot more money." He promised "…the process targets, the Comprehensive Area Assessments, the regional strategies and plans… we’re going to scrap them and let you get on with the job."
All that ring-fencing that makes you budget with one hand behind your back…we’re going to phase it out to allow for real local discretion on spending. All those quangos, like the Standards Board, that has just become a forum for pointless and vexatious complaints …we will scrap them.
In place of the old centrally-controlled regime we’ll have councils empowered to exercise their own judgement. One change that will have an incredibly big effect is our plan to give you, in the legal jargon, a general power of competence. This means that councils can do literally whatever they like as long as it’s legal.
So if there is a valuable local service that’s in financial difficulty and you can find a way of saving it – you will be able to just do it, rather than endlessly ponder whether there is a legal basis to take action. We’re going to give you much greater control over your budgets too, with the power to levy business rate discounts if you feel it would boost growth……and the right to retain the benefits of that growth.
Housing and planning powers are going to be stripped from regional government and given to local, democratically-elected government…and what’s more you’ll have the power to form local enterprise partnerships so that you can abolish the regional development agencies and reclaim more money for economic development.
But now for something we won’t be doing. Under a Conservative Government there will be no more of the endless, pointless, top-down, soul-sapping reorganisations that have disrupted local government for the last decade.
He called on councils to work together to cut costs. "In my back yard. West Oxfordshire District Council
now shares its Chief Executive with Cotswold District Council, cutting a great swathe from the monthly salary bill," he said. Cameron ridiculed the logic that cutting costs could only be achieved by cutting services by asking us to imagine business operating on that basis:
Imagine if they just adopted the idle and outdated logic of Gordon Brown and said that every cost reduction must inevitably lead to a cut in front line services.Think of the commercials they would have to run on the logic of what the government tells us.
“Good food costs more at Sainsbury’s”.
“At Tesco every little bit doesn’t so much as help – in fact it’d be a 10 per cent cut in the quality of the food”.
Asda wouldn’t boast “permanently low prices – but “permanently more and more cuts in quality and service”.
On the need for greater transparenecy Cameron said:
I really do believe that transparency is one of the absolute keys to delivering this.The expenses saga has been incredibly painful in Westminster – for all parties. But it has taught us some important lessons. I think that the most simple lesson – and the most important one – is this. Once you make information public, in real time, about expenses, MPs both change their behaviour – and claim less.
We need to learn this lesson all the way through the public sector, including in local government. Publishing information about spending, including down to items of just £25,000 as we propose to do nationally, will be painful. Locally I would like us to go further. Windsor and Maidenhead have published every item of spending of £500 or more on line. This will lead to lots of tough questions.
It will give information to oppositions, not just administrations.
But it is right.
I understand if you’re not initially as enthusiastic about this as I am. But think what it’s going to do for the reputation of politics. It’s frustrating when people assume you spend half your budgets on pet schemes and half of the rest on waste – this is your chance to shake of those suspicions. And transparency is going to be a great tool in the work of getting more for less.
It’s working that way in London today. Since Boris Johnson insisted on a £1000 threshold for transparency on spending, the GLA has saved over £100million. Imagine what might happen in your council. Because as well as the financial discipline imposed by all those armchair auditors, you’d have local suppliers looking online and seeing if they can offer you a better deal.
And the best thing about transparency is that it doesn’t need massive outlay of costs. I believe we’re just beginning to tap the potential of the post-bureaucratic age. Along with you I want to bring in a new era of Google government. This ambition is why I’ve said local authorities will need to publish more information on the pay, perks and pensions of those who work in the town hall. It’s why we’ll require all police forces to publish crime maps online, so that people can hold them to account at regular beat meetings.
In the post-bureaucratic age we can get citizens involved in the whole debate about what is spent, excite our politics and improve our administration. We must do it.