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O'connell John O'Connell of the TaxPayers Alliance reports from the Lib Dem Conference

The Freedom Association ran their first Freedom Zone at Lib Dem Conference on Monday. The Freedom Zone is very popular at Conservative party conference and the events are so busy that there are often people standing at the back and sitting in the aisles. The turnout wasn’t quite on that scale yesterday, but we had a very good discussion about local government at the TaxPayers’ Alliance event: How to cut spending and deliver lower taxes.

Edward Lord, Chairman of Capital Ambition, spoke in detail about how Lib Dem councils should seek efficiencies far more aggressively. He said that the benefits of outsourcing are given a tough time, smeared as the ‘evils of privatisation’. In particular he cited Hull council, who do not contract out a single service. But Conservative councils are not exempt from this either, Lord said that Sevenoaks in Kent hold on too tightly to services that could be run by other providers.

Mark Littlewood of the Institute of Economic Affairs spoke about extending fiscal autonomy for councils, and argued that we could get more accountability and better performance with proper fiscal localism.

I discussed our fringe event at Conservative party conference last year. It was the first iteration of our local government event at party conference – something we’re repeating this year in Manchester – and there were some excellent points raised there. It was worth raising them again to get discussion going in the room, and look at practical ways for Lib Dem councillors to face the current challenge of tighter budgets.

Outsourcing. Delegates in the room last year said that tendering out contracts is important. This is true, but it’s pointless if it’s not done in the right way. They have be tendered competitively; staff have to be discouraged from simply going with certain providers out of habit. That’s how cosy relationships develop that are easy to enact but often don’t give the best value for taxpayers’ money.

Be more transparent. This isn’t just about executive pay or councillors’ expenses. On the panel last year, Windsor and Maidenhead Leader David Burbage told the audience that they cut energy bills by 15 per cent overnight just by publishing information about energy usage. Staff all of a sudden had information and consciously worked to cut down on how much energy they used individually. Hammersmith and Fulham has published a debt-o-meter and this will help too by giving residents and staff information about why spending reductions are so important.

Adopt a language that council staff and residents understand. This is related to the last point. Last year Stephen Greenhalgh of Hammersmith and Fulham said that councillors are obliged to explain why decisions are being made and not just assert that they are being made.

Don’t compromise on quality. If a council doesn’t provide a service anymore and someone else does, it doesn’t mean that the quality will drop. That must make up part of the tendering process too. Wandsworth also use personal responsibility as a cost cutting measure and as a driver of quality. For example, if a resident wants to hold a street party they are told to do all the necessary checks themselves, such as contacting highways departments and police, and the council makes that easy with clear guidance. This removes bureaucratic costs and allows the council to focus on quality in the things it does provide.

Stick to what councils are good at. Sir Edward Lister, the former Leader of Wandsworth council, reckons that councils don’t really have a place providing services like theatres or art centres. They encourage charitable trusts to run these instead, for example Battersea Arts Centre. They have more expertise and it cuts costs.

Be aware of statutory requirements. Councillors shouldn’t necessarily take at face value a civil servant’s assertion that a particular cut is illegal. They should study the relevant legislation and find out what the minimum they can do to meet it is, particularly if it is burdensome and not a priority. I cited TPA research as an example of this. Leeds council employs 11 FTE equality and diversity officers while Birmingham employs over 25. Whatever one’s thoughts on the merit of the legislation, the different responses to it shows that money can be saved. Simply citing “statutory requirement” doesn’t make every pound spent right, and doesn’t mean money can’t be saved.

Steal good ideas. This is so simple, yet as Mark Littlewood pointed out during the discussion, the lack of benchmarking against a neighbours’ best practice is shocking. Authorities must be less insular and be willing to embrace good ideas. For example, why does Lambeth charge over £500 more in Band D council tax than Wandsworth? After all, Wandsworth’s services are rated more highly, but walk across the border and you’ll pay a lot more in council tax.

Our local government fringe event at the Freedom Zone in Manchester is at 11.30am on Monday 3rd October, in Bridgewater Hall, Barbirolli Room. TPA Campaign Director Emma Boon will Chair, and alongside me on the panel are Stephen Greenhalgh from Hammersmith & Fulham and David Burbage from Windsor & Maidenhead. Local Government Minister Bob Neil will also be joining us.

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