Every local authority is currently engaged in a frank and difficult debate about how it will continue to serve local families and neighbourhoods. Councillors are seeking to secure the best services while living with the reality of budget reductions. Next month budgets will be set, service levels agreed and the council tax demand will follow.
That’s life and we have to get on with it. Councils are in the frontline of the government’s fight to deliver more effective public services and have already delivered substantial savings over the last few years. One small example, my authority, Westminster delivered £14million in staff saving alone in 2010. Saving money, to meet changing service needs is our bread and butter, and we can do this while maintaining strong public support, by relentlessly focusing on local priorities.
Westminster is not alone in the drive for efficiency. Local government has made significant savings over the last few years and many authorities have frozen or cut council tax over the last few years. Most of us recognise the necessity of driving down costs further. The country must pay off the deficit inherited from the last government and local government will see its share of the public handout from the taxpayer fall by £6bn over the next four years.
Cutting is necessary, but hard. We can only sustain this if there is also the potential for a much stronger and independent position for local government in the future. This is in prospect. The government begins to steer through parliament this week a massive and welcome piece of legislation that will return powers to communities and allow local authorities to become more self sufficient, enabling us to manage our finances with less reliance on grants from the centre. Together with government’s review of local government finance, the Localism Bill will change local government for the better.
Councils ready to economise and adapt, government ready to let go of powers seems like a happy relationship. But central and local government need to work on their relationship, using the new localist bargain as the framework. Councils need to stop asking permission for anything they would like to do and start planning for a new self-sufficient future and equally they must get used to a new mantra from minister’s that ‘this issue is entirely a matter for local decision – ask the leader of the council to justify the policy’.
Trading insults demeans both partners and turns everyone off politics. But localism is so important that both sides must ask themselves whether an intervention helps or hinders the drive to localism. If it doesn’t, don’t do or say it. If the mantle of accountability is passing from central to local government through the Bill then we will need a much more grown-up relationship between central and local authorities who will soon have the powers to shape their own destiny.
Local government needs to take on the new freedoms with imagination and competence and Whitehall must give local government the time and space to adapt to the new financial and legislative climate. Minister’s will have to accept that there will be mistakes along the way, there will be laggards and early adopters of the powers to empower communities. They will have to be patient and learn to direct journalists and commentators and complainants to the Town Hall for accountable answers.
The reward for the people of this country will be stronger government closer to them, responding demonstrably to local need and democratic votes. It will lead to assets transferring to local people, planning reflecting neighbourhood values and will in turn improve quality of life. Put simply, Britain will be a better place to live because people will have real influence over local decisions about their future, but we need to debate this sensibly and carefully, not in soundbites.
Localism is based on trust and this is hard won and easily lost. Everyone in politics stands to gain by embracing this change to our constitution and our political settlement for generations to come. In the future all residents will be able to tell whether they have a council that is working in their interests or not, rather than believing that every authority is just the same or that they are all victims of government decisions, and vote accordingly.