Clark is Financial Secretary to the Treasury and MP for Tunbridge
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As usual, almost all of the coverage of last week’s local elections was about national not local politics. So, once again, the huge contribution that local government makes to this country was all but overlooked. Amid the ongoing analysis, I think that this is a good time for Westminster politicians to pause and show some gratitude for the work of our councillors.
From my own perspective as a DCLG-turned-Treasury minister, I can certainly vouch for the fact that the progress that has been made so far in reducing Labour’s deficit would not have been possible without the contribution made by local government. If anyone doubts that our councils are important in this respect, then just consider the fact that a quarter of all public spending takes place at the local authority level. The fight to rebalance the nation’s books needs to be won in our town halls and county halls, not just Whitehall.
While all parts of the public sector need to go further and faster in learning to live within sensible spending constraints, local government is setting the pace. Local authorities have already made significant economies over the past three years. What’s more they have achieved these savings by focusing on reducing overheads and bureaucracy, while seeking to protect frontline public services. It is a tribute to their efforts that residents’ satisfaction with their councils has actually increased over this period.
In part, this is due to the fact that so many councils were ready for the inevitable and necessary squeeze on spending, having had the foresight to begin their preparations well before the 2010 general election. If the national government of the day had practiced a similar degree of prudence, then the current task of deficit reduction would have been a lot easier.
Britain was already an over-centralised country in 1997, but over the next thirteen years the Blair and Brown administrations added massively the burden of control by creating even more quangos, compliance mechanisms, targets and ring-fences. In 2010, the new government turned the tide of centralisation. As local government asked, we got rid of the unelected quangos that controlled our elected councils – the Government Offices of the Regions, the Regional Development Agencies, the Standards Board and other bodies have gone.
And we’ve scrapped the Regional Spatial Strategies, the Comprehensive Area Assessment inspection regime and the 4,700 targets that made up the Local Area Agreements system. Getting rid of so much bureaucracy has made a direct contribution to the task of deficit reduction. But even more importantly, it has made it easier for councils to innovate and achieve more with less – building on what they’ve already achieved.
Central government has much to learn from local government and its important that it does so. Through new measures like the City Deals programme, we need to give councils a much stronger right of initiative – giving them a full say in the devolution of resources and responsibility.
After all the fundamental mistakes of the previous decade, a little humility on the part of Westminster and Whitehall is surely in order – as is a little gratitude to those far beyond SW1 who are putting things right.