It’s probably true to say that the prospect of the forthcoming passage of the Local Democracy, Economic Development and Construction Bill in Parliament, will hardly set the voters’ pulses racing and is probably of only marginal interest to a small number of people even in local government and the construction industry.
It’s certainly the case that on one level the Bill represents the scrappy afterthoughts of a tired, fag end Labour administration – merely paying lip service to real, demonstrable local accountability, engagement with communities and the need to reinvigorate civic life at local government level.
The widespread ridicule which Hazel Blears attracted at the publication of the Government’s White Paper in July – "Free doughnuts if you turn up to vote" – represented the nemesis of Labour’s failed local government agenda of red tape, compulsion, centralisation, form filling, duplication and endless performance assessments since 1997.
Perhaps the very opaqueness and vacuity of the Bill – or so it appears – is designed to obscure the continuing insidious transfer of powers from democratically elected local councillors to government-appointed bureaucrats. Labour have no wish to learn the lessons of the emphatic "no" vote in the North East regional referendum in 2004 and the more recent overwhelming rejection of congestion charging in Greater Manchester before Christmas.
Instead, the underlying message is "if the system doesn’t deliver our
policies at local level as a result of the voters’ decisions – let’s
keep changing the system till it does!" In short, an arrogant disregard
for the autonomy and legitimacy of local democracy and decision making.
The Labour government had a real opportunity to transfer power
downwards to local people. Instead they have junked Regional Assemblies
and intend to vest unprecedented powers in the hands of Regional
Buried in the small print of the Bill are plans for the creation of
unelected economic and transport quangos, allowing the Secretary of
State to establish by Ministerial fiat "combined authorities" – which
will be appointed and not directly elected. These unelected authorities
will be empowered to impose "local charging schemes", in the form of
congestion taxes, road pricing and workplace parking taxes.
As Eric Pickles has said, the Bill establishes a dubious constitutional
precedent in allowing unelected local bodies to begin to levy and vary
taxes on local householders.
The Bill also strips away the last vestiges of democratic
accountability at regional level – by giving major housing and planning
powers to unelected appointees of Regional Development Agencies with
reserved powers by the Secretary of State to revise or disregard
regional plans as they see fit.
Even the figleaf of a rationale for the Bill – greater cooperation and
collaboration between local authorities in the economic sphere – is a
deceit. The Secretary of State will have powers to impose so-called
Multi Area Agreements on local authorities and so-called Leaders’
Boards (unelected) and Economic Prosperity Boards (unelected), will be
effectively to all intents and purposes merely agents of government
policy directed through Regional Development Agencies.
In any case, many local authorities already work well together, in say,
fire authorities or transport executives, without the need for
So much for Hazel Blears platitudes of 9th July last year:
"…the White Paper provides real and practical ways to
put communities in control….Politicians have a contract with those
that they serve – that contract now needs to be rewritten to ensure
that the views of local people are taken more into account."
Labour’s Stalinist quango state of unelected party elites is not the way to achieve these aims.
In contrast, we’ll scrap the whole tier of regional planning.
Only a Conservative government which is committed to more local
autonomy and greater local accountability can begin to rewrite that
contract with people and restore civic pride to local government.