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Glyngas Glyn Gaskarth says there should be fewer legal obligations for councils – but we should know what they are and any new ones should be costed and funded.

By definition councils are legally obliged to fulfil their statutory duties. However, few know the number of statutory duties they are required to fulfil. New ones are added each year. Old ones are rarely repealed. To ensure a council remains compliant councillors rely on their officers. When officers mistake a councils legal responsibilities it results in councils wasting money e.g. they often perform ‘duties’ they are not legally required to perform in the belief there is a legal duty to act.

Council officers do their best. However, significant errors have been made not least over the issue of translation of council documents. This is understandable when Government Quango’s charged with overseeing compliance seem to differ with Government Ministers on the scale of what local authorities are legally required to do. Nobody is completely sure. As a committed localist I believe power should flow from the individual upwards. If we need Government to act power should be exercised by institutions as close to the citizen as possible and the powers themselves should be regularly reviewed to prevent mission creep.

In contrast our country is one of the worlds most centralised. Local elections are often seen as referenda on the Central Governments performance. This is because Central Government dictates what local authorities must do. It does this by imposing statutory duties on local authorities. If a Government is serious about giving local authorities more autonomy it needs to understand what they are currently legally required to do. It needs to audit all the statutory responsibilities of local authorities. All these statutory duties need to be listed in one place accessible to the citizen.

A simple search of “Statutory Duty” on the Department for Communities and Local Government (DCLG) site yields 1,000 individual results. This is highly unscientific. However, we can draw three basic conclusions from this fact. Firstly, there appear to be many statutory duties. Secondly, we are unsure how many. Thirdly that DCLG, the department responsible for managing local authority’s compliance does not appear to include a list of local authorities’ statutory duties on their website (none could be found in this search). This appears to be a conspicuous and regrettable omission.

Conservative spokesmen have pledged to share the pain of the recession. This is likely to mean cuts in the funding available to local authorities. Matching reductions in central government funding to reductions in the responsibilities of local authorities could help provide political cover for funding cuts. Labour politicians at a local level might attempt to ensure that any enforced cuts are targeted on the most unpopular areas to guarantee the maximum backlash against a Conservative Government. We need to be able to say that we have informed local authorities that they no longer needed to do x but they have chosen to continue to do so rather than continue to fund y. That is why your popular service has been cut.

Greater clarity and flexibility would be provided for local authorities. Local authorities would be required to do less. However, they would be certain of what they had to do. Localism should not simply be about rearranging the responsibilities of a bloated state e.g. transferring powers from central to local government.

Removing the existing legal requirements for local authorities to provide services could be one of the most localist moves a Conservative Government could implement. Citizens would then be able to vote for a local authority that pledged to tax less because it was required to do less. Councillors would act when they wanted to because they believed it necessary to act, not simply to comply with the will of Central Government.

To achieve this we would need to adopt the following policies:

Policy Recommendations

  • Order an immediate audit of all the statutory duties imposed on local authorities.
  • Catalogue and review all local authorities’ statutory duties to assess if each is still relevant and necessary.
  • Abolish all non essential statutory duties in a bonfire of the controls imposed on local authorities.
  • Create a new statutory duty on Central Government to list all the duties of local authorities in one place (a website) accessible to the public.
  • Create a new statutory duty on Central Government to provide a full publicly available regulatory impact assessment of the costs of each new statutory duty they propose to require local authorities to implement.
  • Create a new statutory duty on Central Government to provide full funding to local authorities in accordance with the estimated costs of each new statutory duty imposed. There should be no more unfunded legal requirements for local authorities to act.
  • Create a new statutory duty on Central Government (following the completion of the six measures stipulated above) to include a compulsory sunset clause on all new statutory duties to ensure they
    are reviewed at periodic five year intervals.

It may seem contradictory to propose the creation of four new statutory duties in an article lamenting the number of statutory duties. However, it seems to be the only way of controlling central governments insatiable appetite to impose unfunded duties on local authorities. It is also the only way to ensure that when a council officer says we must do x to comply with the law a councillor/member of the public can be sure this is genuinely the case i.e. because they can look up a list of a local authorities statutory duties. These measures are essential if we are to build the small government localist state I think we should. I hope you will agree and welcome any comments/suggestions.

The views expressed above are my personal views and not those of my employer or any other organisation with which I am associated.

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