"Show me the money!" It’s one of the most recognisable catchphrases in film history and it’s coming to a council near you. We all know that budgets are going to be a lot tighter in future and councils are going to have to make tough decisions about how to spend their money. I don’t want councils to be justifying their decisions to me. It’s much more important that people paying their council tax bills know exactly where their cash is going and judge whether it's delivering value for money.
But let's be clear, this is a golden era of local government. Of course we are asking people to do more for less, but we are placing more power in the hands of councils, neighbourhoods and communities. We do not need to be less ambitious, or less radical, just because we have less money.
Council spending has at times been shrouded in secrecy, with predictable results: waste, inefficiency and sometimes frankly barmy decisions. It isn’t surprising that the public gets frustrated when they see councils advertising crazy public sector ‘non-jobs’. By putting their spending online, residents are able to judge for themselves what they are getting and demand answers if they aren’t happy. Councils that waste your money will get a kick in the ballot box.
So what I’ve been doing over the past few weeks is calling for councils to publish all their spending over £500 online. And it’s been great to see many rising to this challenge. Fareham, Waverley and Richmond are just a few who have embraced our new era of transparency. And this isn’t one of those things that people are having a huge moan about. These are the leading councillors and councils who will reap the benefits of greater honesty with the public and see a culture change within their town halls.
I’m well aware that after a decade of Labour maxing out the nation’s credit card with disastrous results, central government is hardly in a position to be lecturing to councils about respect for public money. I can hardly look councils in the eye and act holier-than-thou if I don’t make every effort to put my own house in order first. That’s why I’ve promised local government that the Department for Communities and Local Government is going to be the first Whitehall department to put all its spending over £500 online too. I’ve absolutely no doubt that this is going to cause all kinds of skeletons to come tumbling out of the closet. And I’ve no doubt that it may well cause me problems in the future. But it’s the right thing to do.
Traditionally, Secretaries of State for Local Government have taken great pleasure in ordering councils about, telling councillors exactly what to do, and when to do it. David Miliband has conceded that Labour ignored local government over the past decade. The result was ministers routinely riding roughshod over the voice of communities.
I’m not a traditional Secretary of State. I’m much more interested in listening to councillors. For too long local authorities have been held hostage by central government. They have been held prisoner, chained to the radiator. It’s my job to free them, and let them get on with the job of running public services.
And so it’s been great to see the response to the campaign I’ve been running on cutting red tape: ideas for getting rid of inane and insane laws which do nothing but cause councillors’ headaches.
People have been coming forward with common sense suggestions on everything from streamlining the planning system, to getting homes built more quickly, to saving trees. These are ideas which will save time and save money; freeing up councillors to focus on what really matters to local residents instead of ticking boxes and filling in forms. One of the most annoying things is when petty bureaucracy actually makes people powerless to act and solve their own problems. When I visited Boscombe last week, one resident told me that there were hundreds of people who wanted to volunteer to help with the upkeep of parks but all the ‘health and safety’ forms and supervisory rules prevent communities from getting involved. These are ideas I want to act on quickly: so watch this space.
The ‘cut red tape’ campaign is part of the much bigger programme to promote ‘your freedom’ being run by the Deputy Prime Minister to scrap all the pointless regulation and unnecessary bureaucracy that has been created over the past decade and has blighted your life. I’m determined to dump them on the scrapheap as soon as possible.
We are putting people back in charge of their lives. Businesses and councils back in charge of economic growth and town halls back in charge of local affairs. That’s what localism means. For the first time in more than a decade local government has the chance to make real decisions.