Lord Flight is Chairman of Flight & Partners Recovery Fund, and is a former Shadow Chief Secretary to the Treasury.
Writing this column last week, just ahead of polling day, I expected the Conservatives to hold Westminster and, hopefully, Wandsworth, because both Conservative administrations have provided good local government. The more the results of local elections are about the competence of particular local governments, the better.
Voters often little realise how much local government does, and, in particular, the extent to which it delivers public-sector services. Much of central government expenditure, other than health, education, and defence — and, in particular, welfare spending, comprises fiscal redistribution.
So, what does local government do? In no particular order: rubbish/dustbin collection; adults and health; management of public-sector housing; street cleaning and lighting; highways and parking; planning; education management covering primary schools and senior schools, where they have not been delegated to independent organisations as with academies and UTCs; managing parks, leisure facilities (e.g. swimming pools), and local and national elections; and collecting council tax.
A major recent development has been to combine the management of standard health services with other public services for senior citizens. This covers areas such as Freedom Passes, care homes, and specialist dwellings, linked up with NHS mental health services and standard medical needs. It has become the largest spending area of local government.
In the case of Westminster, 25 per cent of its current housing stock is social rent, and only one per cent is affordable. That is why the current Conservative-led council has prioritised building more genuinely affordable homes, and is on target to build nearly 2,000 such homes by 2023.
The effectiveness and quality of the management of local government services depend substantially on the quality of the professional local government officers. Elected councillors function in a role analogous to private-sector boards and directors, determining and leading policy and monitoring performance, but not functioning in an executive capacity.
I believe that most people do not know what local government does or how it is organised, but, thankfully, they do have a perception of whether it is well or badly run, locally. It is a nonsense to be campaigning in local elections about national government or shadow government policies. The campaign and debate should be about the competence of incumbent local government, and the quality and wisdom of the opposition’s local government policies.
The results in Westminster and Wandsworth and other places where local government has a good (or a bad) delivery record should evidence the extent to which local government performance is becoming more important politically. I would like to see all senior schools (as was the case with my own school) having a slot to teach the structure of the British constitution – starting with the monarch and going through to the voter. This should give teenagers an understanding of local as well as national government, which will stay with them throughout their lives, and thus help improve the engagement and basis of knowledge for local government elections.