Mark Wallace, of the Taxpayers Alliance, calls for local government to be made financially independent.
Naturally, the political world will this week be focused on the Budget. Faced with crushing levels of debt, vast amounts of new Government borrowing, a vastly complex tax and welfare system and an international crisis of confidence in our economy thanks to the scale of the public sector, the Chancellor could well be forgiven for requesting Hemlock as his drink of choice to accompany the speech.
What might there be for local government in the Budget?
What there will probably be is more of the same. Yet more diktats from Westminster, yet more funding and powers for the bossy boots in the Department of Communities and Local Government and a few sweeties to allow the Government to boast that it is helping people out.
Given the justified opposition in the Lords last week to the well intentioned but utterly unaffordable plans for free home care for the elderly, there is also slight chance that we may see a handout from the Treasury to at least partially cover the massive costs that the proposals threaten to place on councils.
So far, so run-of-the-mill. Given the obsessive trend towards centralisation, it is fairly simple to predict that we will see a micro-managing administration micro-manage a bit more.
But what should the Budget feature for local government?
Instead of the myriad directives, horse-trading deals and political sops we have seen for decades now from Governments of both sides, the ideal would really be to have a Local Government chapter in the Budget which is almost entirely blank.
If that sounds radical, that is because it is. If it seems implausible, that is a reflection on quite how un-local local government has really become.
The list of ways in which central Government interferes with councils is as long as your arm, and most fundamentally of all it meddles by controlling the purse strings. Free councils to raise the bulk of their own funding as their local voters wish, and to spend it as those taxpayers desire, and the power wielded by distant politicians and unaccountable Whitehall bureaucrats over Town Halls would swiftly wither away.
Einstein – whose research into black holes may also be applicable to our current public finance mess – once said “Insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.” If his maxim is true, then our national policy towards local government has long been insane.
Time and again, Ministers of Conservative and Labour Governments have decided to “fix” councils by dictating what policy approach they think is best for everyone. Time and again their ideas have failed in practice, or succeeded in some areas and failed in others. Time and again they have tried to replace their lost credibility with brute force, accruing greater legal and financial control over local government.
What has it left us with? Greater fiscal centralisation than almost any other developed nation. Power held by unaccountable bureaucrats and quangos rather than by the people or their representatives. Soaring council tax, paired with reductions in service quality.
Worst of all, it has left us with a devastatingly low turnout and a widespread sense of bleak disillusionment in local government as a whole. This is because the public are not insane – they see no point in trying time and again to get involved in local government, because they know from experience that the result will always be the same, so long as power is held elsewhere.
The national Budget is an important document, but council taxpayers will be an awful lot happier – and an awful lot better off – when its chapter headed “Local Government” is deleted.