Ten days ago, the Local Government Association produced a great report that was both radical and realistic. Instead of just harping on about how they must be given more money, as some of their spokesmen have been wont to do to excess, the LGA actually explored how to make the sector more cost effective by scrapping central regulation and sacking central regulators in Whitehall, as well as abolishing and hacking back quangos.
If anyone should be localists, of course, it’s the Local Government Association, but they haven’t always been willing to take the plunge and properly explore the practical implications of localism. Essentially, they have wanted to have their cake and eat it – demanding greater local freedom and power but at the same time insisting that Central Government (i.e. the national taxpayer) should shell out more and more money to balance shaky Town Hall budgets.
This latest release, though, went into great detail on which bundles of red tape should be scrapped, which Whitehall Departments should be cut back, specifiying quangos to cull and exactly how and why local government should be entrusted with more freedom.
As well as being philosophically worthwhile, it was politically savvy too – the LGA were making a break from the mournful Oliver Twist approach to public finance of simply demanding “Can I have some more?”, apparently in direct response to the fact that the Treasury’s cupboards are bare.
Their proposals would, they estimate, save £4.5 billion a year, which should be welcome news to the Government, who currently have 175 billion beads on the wrong side of their abacus for this financial year alone.
Having been presented with a golden opportunity to save billions, actually initiated by local government itself, DCLG has this week simply forged ahead with its traditional approach – throwing money around.
Barbara Follett, the Communities Minister (who charged security guards on expenses to protect herself from her own local community, by the way), has announced that councils will be given £3.2 billion extra this year. Not a peep has there been about the LGA’s suggestions of how to save money – Regional
Development Agencies, absurd red tape, overpaid Whitehall officials and everything else they picked out for cuts are apparently just going to continue as normal.
I’m sure the LGA will be glad that this £3.2 billion is coming their way, even though no-one can really afford it, but they must be more than a bit perplexed. They stuck their necks out to do the right, helpful thing by advising Ministers on how to save a large amount of money. The response they received cannot have been the one they expected, but they will pocket the cash gladly.
Sadly, the message they may well take away is that they may as well persevere with the Oliver Twist approach of begging for more, rather than generating radical proposals to save money.
This is a great frustration for those of us who think the Government should be making an effort to save money. It seems they can’t even be bothered to pretend to make an effort to save money any more. Perhaps the national debt is now so huge that they don’t think it’s worth the hassle just to save a mere £4.5 billion, and that if you’re borrowing so much anyway you may as well throw an extra £3.2 billion onto the credit card for spending increases, too.