Mark Wallace of the Taxpayers Alliance says the Audit Commission is a culprit in thwarting local government from being local – the pressure for fortnightly bin collections being the latest example.
The selling point of local government is in its name – it is meant to be local. That means it should be administered by people who understand the local area, overseen by councillors who understand and care about their patch, who are in tum accountable to voters who have a personal interest in the quality of services and the rates of taxes they face.
But how local really is local government?
In terms of staff and facilities, the sector is certainly pretty strongly focused at a local level.
By definition, the delivery of the services themselves is local, too. You can’t get much more local than collecting the bins from someone’s doorstep.
By and large, the councillors are local people, too. Of course, there are concerns of parties parachuting in people for political reasons in some cases, and there have even been the absurd cases of councillors moving to other countries but hanging on to their posts, but they are in a tiny minority.
So far, so good. But despite all that, there is still widespread frustration amongst ordinary voters and taxpayers that councils do not listen to them, or react to their concerns. The low turnout in local elections is strong proof of that disillusionment. If people felt their vote counted on issues that really matter, they would be more likely to cast it.
The core problem is that much of the real power isn’t actually wielded locally at all. Instead, central government and a menagerie of quangos both pay the piper and call the tune when it comes to supposedly local activities.
Take as an example the issue of bin collections. As I’ve already said, you would struggle to find something more obviously local. Indeed, council waste collections are probably the only service you can guarantee that everyone in the country will use throughout their whole lives.
But on Saturday it emerged that the Audit Commission – an explicitly central government quango – has been leaning on councils to cut back collections to fortnightly instead of weekly. This is the latest development in a long-running saga over fortnightly bin collections, and at every stage we have seen central government promoting a policy opposed by local people. Even the EU’s Landfill Directive pokes its nose in by dictating how councils dispose of the waste they collect.
Bins are only one of the myriad activities that councils are involved in, but it is sadly typical of the wider issue. In almost every field, councils are getting pressure from central government to behave in a particular way, guidance from quangos about what is expected of them, and directives from Brussels.
The Audit Commission is a particular culprit. Under the old star grading system, and now the new Comprehensive Area Assessments (recently described to me by one journalist as “Incomprehensible Area Assessments”), the Commission sets the terms by which councils are judged good or bad. This is a position of great influence, and there is a real danger that they might punish councils for doing something that local residents want but which official, central policy disapproves of.
The closest analogy is the case of the schools which are rated poorly in official league tables not because they get bad results, but because they use the International GCSEs that are not recognised by the Government’s official ranking system.
If a council decides that it wants to maintain key services such as weekly bin collections, but save money elsewhere by cutting diversity initiatives, or refusing to attend costly conferences and networking events, why should they be punished by being downgraded publicly by an unaccountable quango at the other end of the country?
Schools are another such area. Even leaving aside the centralised nature of the curriculum, the very fabric of schools is now being meddled with by the Government.
For example, it is not possible to get any Building Schools for the Future money to refurbish or improve an existing school. No, to get BSF cash you must demolish the school entirely and start from scratch – regardless of whether the original buildings could have continued in use at a lower cost. It doesn’t matter if the council want to save money, or would prefer to simply revamp an existing and appropriate building. Unless you obey to the letter the Government’s demands, then no dice.
The list goes on – even the terms of the pensions on offer to local government staff are set centrally rather than locally.
Correcting this imbalance will be a difficult thing to achieve. Some of that difficulty is practical – by definition, unaccountable quangos are difficult to instruct – but much of it is cultural.
Politicians, both as individuals and as parties, are going to have to break two bad habits. First is the habit of demanding that central government intervene in local issues – the “something must be done” knee jerk reaction that has handed Government a licence to meddle.
Second, and arguably more difficult than the first, it is time to embrace variation from area to area. The problem with a “postcode lottery” is not in the concept of the state working differently in different parts of the country, it is in the idea of the lottery – the feeling that the service you receive is outside your control and decided by chance. Voters would welcome the opportunity to improve their local area, and for surrounding areas to be allowed to choose for themselves how their money is spent and services are run.
Local voters must be given real power over their local services. That would be true local government.