Cllr Stephen Greenhalgh, Cllr Colin Barrow and Cllr Edward Lister, Leaders of three flagship London Councils are asking the new Government for the freedom to show how to save £13.9bn of public money while delivering better services. Cllr Barrow writes –
On one of the few occasions that I met Margaret Thatcher, she commended me for my fortitude in standing for the Council after a career in the City. She mentioned her father’s civic work, and said that we were ‘all heroes’ for working in local government. When I pointed out that much of the centralisation of which we now complain was introduced when she was Prime Minister, she fixed me with the famous icy stare and told me that there were more of ‘them’ than there were of ‘us’, so local government had needed to be brought under control.
As it happens there are now more of ‘us’ than there are of ‘them’, but that is not the point. The point of local government is in its title. It is supposed to be local, and it is supposed to be government. Each area is different, each will need different solutions for its problems, and only local people know what those solutions are. Yet in many areas, over the heads of locally elected people, central government, hundreds of miles away, controls 90 per cent of public expenditure.
Why? Because when something happens in Rochdale or Ludlow, Ministers refuse to say that it is the responsibility of the local health service or council. HM Opposition bewails the Postcode Lottery. Something Must be Done, clamours the media. The Permanent Secretary sets out some options for the minister: strengthen guidance, call for an inquiry, send in a hit squad, set targets, set up a quango, form a regulator (with teeth, of course). And so on.
With each recommendation a little bit of democracy dies. A little bit of ground is ceded to the centralists, so that now we are the most centralised states in the developed world. As with many things, Margaret Thatcher got her way; it doesn’t seem to matter whether local government is made up of ‘us’ or ‘them’. The public understands this. Which is why they generally don’t care much about local elections.
This time it is different. This time the Conservative Party is committed to localism. We are committed to fixing the broken society. We are dedicated to maintaining and improving front line services while saving public spending. All of this can be done and we three – leaders of flagship Conservative councils with a track record of delivery and value for money – want to become Foundation Councils, free from the dead hand of central government. And we show in our paper, A Magna Carta for Localism, published by the Centre of Policy Studies today, how it can be done.
The first, and only port of call for a benefits claimant should be the local council. A one stop shop for the whole public service offering. Benefits, housing, social care, employment services, all under one roof. One file, one story, one set of data, one effective service, tailored to individual need.
The first and only port of call for short and long term community care should be the local council.
And local policing should be joined up with the rest of the public service through the local council. The more we can integrate key local social, benefits and other services into family or area based units the more successful we will be in putting people back on the right road. Preventing crime at source.
These may seem like small measures, small and obvious steps to better public services. But they are big steps in rolling back the lumbering juggernaut of the central state in favour of nimble targeted local service.
Which is why we have estimated that this will save £13.9bn of public money. Nearly 10% of the deficit. Now if we could do that, we really would be Lady Thatcher’s heroes, wouldn’t we?
Colin Barrow is Leader of Westminster, Edward Lister is Leader of Wandsworth and Stephen Greenhalgh is Leader of Hammersmith and Fulham.