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Gareth Lyon is a former councillor in Rushmoor and the Chairman of the Aldershot and North Hants Conservative Association.

We are now approaching the inevitable and tragic culmination of efforts to undermine District Councils.

At this stage, to have the opportunity to extol the good that borough and district councils do, feels more like being given the opportunity to bury, rather than to praise them.

It is increasingly regarded as an open secret that the Government sees the future of local government as lying in massive county-wide unitary councils, possibly supplemented by a patchwork of parish councils.

This outcome will come as no surprise to those of us who have followed closely the treatment of district and borough councils over recent decades.

Whist there surely has not been a deliberate strategy to systematically undermine district councils and prevent them from functioning as effectively as they can, it is sometimes hard to discern how such a strategy would manifest itself differently from the effects of the cruel and negligent treatment of this tier of councils by successive Governments.

By way of context, the UK is already something of an outlier in Europe in terms of the average size of the lowest tier of local government, its funding and its powers. France, Spain and Germany in particular, entrust far more responsibility to bodies equal to, or smaller, in size than English district and borough councils.

Yet district and borough councils are a very prominent feature of local political life in the UK, and almost always the arrangement of responsibilities means that they are on a hiding to nothing.

Taking Council Tax as an example. Being a tax which must specifically be paid as opposed to being deducted automatically like PAYE or NI it is consistently amongst the most noticed and most hated taxes in the country.

It is well known that your local council will arrange collection of this (and other understandably unpopular taxes like business rates); what is less well understood is how little of this tax is actually collected for the district/borough itself to use.

Indeed, many districts and boroughs I know are obliged to hand over more than 90 per cent of what they collect to other less local and less accessible authorities, such as the county council, fire service, or Police and Crime Commissioner.

This may seem like a small point but it should not be underestimated how much responsibility people will ascribe to the authority whose headed notepaper they receive their tax demand on.

In many cases, district and borough councils have managed to freeze or reduce their Council Tax charge without this even being noticed by their electorate as it is more than cancelled out by substantial increases from other authorities.

This leaves districts and boroughs as the unloved collectors of money due to others while having no say in its spend.

The situation is, if anything, even wore on Business Rates. This absurd tax is divided between the various tiers of Government, with councils facing tax revenues being “clawed back” by central Government if they succeed in fostering local businesses, boosting economic activity, and ultimately receipts by too much… yet facing the full force of economic headwinds if substantial local businesses get into trouble, relocate, or downsize.

This awkward position, of being consistently in the frame for decisions which are made elsewhere and imposed locally – with districts and borough as the most accessible and identifiable local representation taking the blame is now established in almost every area of council activity.

In key competencies such as planning and development and licensing, councils room for manoeuvre has been strictly limited for some time – with central Government and an army of unaccountable and remote inspectors being able to overrule decisions at the drop of a hat.

Over recent years though this has extended into many new areas by the back door – local councils are responsible for attracting and fostering local businesses, except that all the decisions about key infrastructure to support businesses are made at a regional or national level.

Local councils usually have responsibility for parking, except that county councils have the ability to use the trump card of responsibility for highways to effectively dictate policy – along of course with the Government’s green agenda balancing the scales further against car users.

Councils have responsibility for recycling and numerous environmental matters – but the heavy hand of central Government is starting to fall here too – often with no appreciation for local factors or demographics.

With these and dozens of other wounds being administered to the body of district and borough councils it could be argued that the Government may be considering the right thing in handing everything over to vast unitary authorities – even if they may have been a party to the assassination.

Yet this is to ignore the fact that it is much easier for most people to get to know their local councillor and to raise issues with them. It is to ignore the fact that there are massive differences between Aldershot at one end of Hampshire and the New Forest on the other – and that local identities matter in politics.

Ultimately there is a risk that the Government ignores the wishes of local people to have the power to make more of the political decisions which affect their lives.

One could even argue that it is time for those driving such thinking to get out London and meet some people who are not centralising special advisors…

 

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