This morning’s Today programme led on promises from the great centralisers of NuLabour to decentralise power to local communities. They might be trying to steal David Cameron’s localisation agenda – they were shameless in an almost word-for-word steal of one community-empowering idea during last May’s election. But there are more immediate issues for local government…
Last week the local by-elections report on conservatives.com showed that the Tories won seats from the LibDems in Test Valley and Monmouthshire. The pattern picked up in those two gains – and today’s ICM poll – suggest that the Tories could do reasonably well in this year’s round of local elections.
The Conservatives hope to benefit from anger at the fact that council tax – Labour’s favourite and very regressive stealth tax – has risen by 84% since the Blair-Brown axis came to power in 1997. The problem for the Tories is, as yesterday’s Times reported, some of the biggest tax increases are being requested by Conservative councils. Eric Pickles MP, Shadow Minister for Local Government, insists, however, that Tory councils still provide better value for money:
"On average across different tiers of local government, Conservative councils charge £74 a year less on Band D bills than Labour councils and £83 a year less than Liberal Democrats."
It is good to hear a Tory frontbencher using tax as a political weapon. It is unfortunately less potent because, as Simon Heffer writes today, too many Tory councils are not doing enough to tackle waste in their local authorities:
"It used to be the case that the Tories would instinctively see the urgency of fighting such waste, but that was before the new dispensation in which public spending, in all respects, became a good in itself. There is no point the Tories attacking Labour’s naked redistributionism unless they are prepared to come up with proposals to stop it. I don’t just mean stopping the flow of money from the South-East to Labour’s urban English fiefdoms, or the even more blatant and deeply undemocratic transfer of funds from England to Scotland, which appears to have been the hidden cost of devolution. I mean stopping redistribution from the private to the public sectors: and acknowledging the financial necessity of ending this rape of the productive parts of our economy."
A leader in yesterday’s Daily Telegraph recommends a local sales tax as a long-term solution for the problems of local government finance. It believes that such a tax – by producing different prices in different localities for shoppers to exploit – will encourage downward pressure on tax (and waste).