Cllr David Burbage is Leader of the Royal Borough of Windsor and Maidenhead, and chairs the South East Strategic Leaders group (SESL)
Whitehall doesn’t let go easily. Only when faced with fait accompli like Scottish devolution does the elastic snap and areas suddenly become freed from central control. Yet by enabling local choice, rather than rely upon a controlling pattern of centralised decisions, a truly localist agenda can emerge. As a local council leader, I’m all in favour of a bit of devolution from Whitehall to local authorities, but as well as that there are far more areas where a bit of local choice could bring economic benefits as well as service improvements.
(Please note that these ideas are mine – and/or borrowed). They don’t necessarily form part of a Royal Borough of Windsor and Maidenhead policy positions.)
1 BUSINESS RATES
What better way to trump Ed’s business rates announcement than to allow local authorities the ability to lower business rates locally, without forcing local taxpayers to make up the difference in Council Tax? By allowing local wealth to stay local, pushing up the percentage of local retention of business rates far faster and with more freedoms, successful businesses will be able to grow without seeing their profits siphoned off to pay for local authority services in other parts of the country.
It can be hard enough to justify the level of business rates as they are (for the amount of local services they deliver), without having a sensible explanation as to why that “local tax” is exported from one local authority area to another. The reducing size of the total pot is an ideal opportunity to extend local choice.
2. MORE LOCAL AND NEIGHBOURHOOD PLANNING
Extending the rights of the referendum-backed neighbourhood (or local authority) plan – “bottom up” planning – to trump the national use class restrictions and/or certain guidance for employment and business, could generate economic growth. We have a great deal of national encouragement and policy direction directed at housing delivery – although that may well be welcome to address housing shortages and generate economic activity. It doesn’t intrinsically produce sustainable industrial growth. However, if neighbourhoods want to attract a certain kind of business, whether it be a manufacturing, utility or service business, and local people are prepared to vote to allow it (and live with the consequences) in a referendum, why not?
3. RE-EXTEND COMPETITIVE TENDERING
Publicly subsidised services can squeeze out competition from private sector competitors. Whether they are housing maintenance services, or leisure services, or bin collection services, it should be a requirement for local authorities to always offer a business opportunity to the private sector. For many authorities the in-house services become inefficient, lack investment from pressured budgets and offer poor value for money to taxpayers. Re-introducing elements of compulsory tendering would allow local people to get the best deal.
4 EXTEND “CITY DEALS” TO ANY COUNTY, BOROUGH, DISTRICT
Allowing controls over further education expenditure locally, with incentives for schools and colleges to produce the employees of the future with economically beneficial qualifications, together with funding freedoms to support transport and other infrastructure projects – these are key elements of a business-friendly economic growth agenda. It’s time that the policy principle (as advocated in the LGA’s Rewiring Public Services – Economic Growth) of devolved decision helping increase economic performance was recognised.
Also – having had some experience of the current cross-Whitehall nature of the current City Deals initiative – simplify, and speed it up!
5 MAKE LOCAL GOVERNMENT BONDS EASY
New Zealand, Sweden and Finland already do it. In the US, municipal bonds are commonplace – in Michigan alone, 651 local communities have bond ratings, and only two (august 2013) did not reach investment grade.
Large local authorities like Birmingham and Cornwall already have credit ratings. If the Treasury was serious about encouraging investment in infrastructure from local communities, enabling local authorities (and, feasibly, other parts of the public sector) to raise money from bonds issue should be a priority, not a candidate for the long grass. It’s fair enough to suggest to the sector that we re-allocate pension funds, but it would be more effective to give local communities the freedoms to raise investment capital locally.
It might even save some Whitehall jobs in evaluating all those local authority bids for centrally distributed funds (education, transport, you name it). Give the helping hand up, not the hand out!