As we reflect on the first anniversary of the Coalition it is worth taking a look from a local government perspective how far we have come and how far we still need to go and to offer a few thoughts on where the government could focus its energy over the next twelve months.
The Coalition came to office with two clear priorities – reduce the size of the deficit and to move power from the centre by encouraging and empowering local communities to take far greater control over their own lives. The resource review will now address growth and fiscal autonomy.
It has been an illuminating and at times frenetic period and we have seen a raft of initiatives and changes including, notably, the end of the Government Office for London, RDA’s, the Audit Commission and CPAs. Further reforms around housing, planning, health and education will all have far reaching and long-term effects.
Throughout this period no one can accuse the CLG team of being shy in coming forward. Others might prefer a little shyness, however, I take the view that we are all grown-ups and having a robust debate is part of our transition, from a position of dependency on Whitehall to being able to run it own affairs.
No one can deny that dealing with reduced budgets is difficult. Local government though like the rest of the public sector must live within its means. The vast majority of councils have handled these reductions in a mature and sensitive manner that has proved that councils are responsible and capable of dealing with such difficult decisions. Those that complained about the deal they were dealt would do better to campaign for a change in how local government is financed.
And interestingly the elections last week seemed to show that the public understands what the coalition is doing and what good Conservative councils are doing. The electorate has not punished incumbents for good housekeeping.
Local government needs to take a good hard look at itself. We need to recognise that we are being set free, if gradually. The sector itself must change and indeed is changing, with many authorities actively seizing new opportunities and powers. The government seems to be holding its nerve.
It is perhaps too early to judge how much the Coalition’s devolution programme has delivered and how far it has come to delivering a new localist settlement. Of course, such fundamental change was never going to happen over-night. In some areas CLG Ministers have repeatedly told councils that no longer do they need to ask permission and that they just need to get on with it. But elsewhere, as hesitation around the Community Budgets pilots has shown, there is still a long way to go in getting some of the major departments across Whitehall to play ball. Ministers are forcing the pace and overruling their cautious civil servants.
Here are some ways to accelerate the delivery of a new localist settlement over the next year, and at the same time support the Coalition’s other aims.
1) The government should look to set as many councils free from the financial ties of Whitehall as possible. Only with financial autonomy will true devolution and accountability occur.
2) Authorities should be given control of the public funds within their local areas and have responsibility for commissioning joined-up local services. We have tried central state planning. It didn’t work for the Soviet Union, it doesn’t work for Britain. We all want to save money and deliver better services. Joining up the dots locally will take us a long way in that direction as Westminster is showing with its pioneering work with problem families.
3) Local councils need money to deliver local growth. If business rate income rises, some of that should stay with the local authority who made it happen. This would bind the Coalition’s two key priorities together. We already have the power to promote growth. Reforming business rates will reconnect us with our businesses and force us to focus on what helps our local economy and helps our residents into work.
4) We need financial freedoms to deliver more affordable housing. Freedom to borrow would deliver hundreds of thousands of new homes. The bureaucracy of the HRA should be swept away, allowing housing to function as a separate trading activity, ring-fenced away from other local authority budgets. This would bring the UK into line with other countries, without impacting upon the credit worthiness of local councils or of UK plc.
5) The ability to recover the full cost of the licensing and planning regime from those who seek permissions would end the present unfair subsidy of these services by the council taxpayer. It would also enable us to provide a faster and more sensible regime for developers and businesses.
6) We welcome the measures taken so far, but there needs to be a major push on tackling unnecessary regulation and reporting by councils to government.
As councils retrieve their independence, the whole country needs to recognise how free we really are; we can stop complaining about Whitehall and get on with using our influence, powers and, let’s face it, money to improve our areas. And we can be judged by the people who elected us. This is how it should be. What’s not to like?