This week saw the taxpayer-funded festival of self-congratulation that was the annual conference of the Local Government Association. Among the usual back slapping and spin seminars, the speech made by Cllr Margaret Eaton, the Conservative chairman of the LGA, was particularly interesting.
Instead of discussing why council tax has become Britain’s most unpopular tax, or how to help pensioners forced to choose between penury or prison by exorbitant tax bills, Cllr Eaton decided to take the Gordon Brown approach by retreating to her bunker and going for the negative core vote strategy. How best to look good at an LGA shindig? Why, lash out at the TaxPayers’ Alliance, of course.
The TPA, she announced to half-hearted applause, “knows the cost of everything but the value of nothing”. She would perhaps have been wise to note the large cost to the taxpayer of the LGA’s conference, which is itself of highly questionable value.
The problem with Cllr Eaton and the LGA as a body is that they simply do not get it. If no-one cared about the problems and the waste our research has identified in local government, then she surely would not need to devote part of her most high profile speech of the year to attempting to dismiss them out of hand. The public are deeply angry at the vast increases in council tax in recent years, they are strongly opposed to the various service cuts they have received in return and as a result they do have a strong interest in the work that we do.
It is not good enough for the chairman of the LGA to simply stick her fingers in her ears and deny that there is a problem at all. Whilst it may please a few of the more out-of-touch members of the LGA’s management – and certainly pleases the taxpayer-funded staff of that quango to simply focus on increasing spending and turn a blind eye to the effects of huge tax rises – to do so is a severe disservice to the people and indeed to local government itself.
One of the reasons for Cllr Eaton’s slightly bizarre attack is that the Local Government Association is at odds with itself – lacking a coherent remit, a workable structure or indeed any real support base. The TPA’s Council Spending Uncovered campaign has for the first time turned a serious spotlight on local government spending, and the LGA have proved notably incapable of defending against or justifying the problems that we have identified. Indeed among Councillor Eaton’s own party, her speech was greeted with derision on this blog by councillors and grassroots activists who see very little point in the LGA at all.
The Association supposedly exists to defend the interests of local government and to promote good practice in councils. However, to do anything it must get an agreed consensus amongst the Conservative, Labour, Liberal Democrat and Independent groups within the Association. The structure of the organisation works to stifle radical good thinking and instead to lazily promote the big government status quo.
The ideas of Hammersmith and Fulham, for example, that have made such a huge difference to local residents by providing good services at a low and falling price, are ignored by the LGA. When did you ever hear Margaret Eaton praise the Wandsworth Way, which has delivered such low tax and high satisfaction? Where were the LGA when Windsor & Maidenhead took the plunge and published all their spending online for all to see?
Instead, the LGA actively opposes genuinely radical localism for fear that it could transfer power to the people and diminish the authority (and income) of councillors. For example, it repeatedly pilloried the idea of electing police authorities – presumably because one of the few things all party representatives could agree on was that their own senior colleagues would be angry if they lost their personal power and attendance allowance.
Instead of producing innovative ideas about how things could be done better, at every juncture it has opted to roll over and wag its tail in the hope that if it cooperates enough then the Government might grant councils some more crumbs off the Treasury table. Local Government, taxpayers and the majority of councillors who just want to see things work better lose out as a result.
Even worse, it has allowed itself to become cowed by the local government unions to the degree that its press releases on staff pay and pensions could have been churned out by Bob Crow rather than representatives of the people.
The LGA is clearly unfit for purpose. Indeed, off-camera even its own officers will admit that the whole thing is a bureaucratic nightmare, paralysed by its own internal structure and struggling to produce much of value.
It is not just that the LGA doesn’t agree with the people on issues of tax and spend, or even with many of its own councillors – it doesn’t even seem to agree with itself on various issues. The one good bit of Cllr Eaton’s speech was when she conceded that the Local Government Pension Scheme has become unaffordable and needs serious reform. On that, she’s right – but when the TaxPayers’ Alliance suggested just that back in February of this year, the LGA condemned the idea, saying:
Who was the Chairman of the LGA at that time? Cllr Margaret Eaton, of course.
Whilst it was amusing to hear her agree with our proposals on pensions in almost the same breath that she used to condemn us, it is a worrying sign that any political organisation can chop and change its views on such a crucial matter in the space of five months.
One ConservativeHome commenter said on Tuesday in response to Cllr Eaton’s speech that the LGA is the NUS of local government. They are right – it is unaccountable, out of touch, bureaucratic, costly, hypocritical, navel-gazing and useless even to councillors. It is small wonder that several councils have chosen to leave in recent years, and use the subscription money for more worthy causes. Other councils should do the same, and join the fight for genuinely better local government.