Labour published its draft 2015 local government manifesto recently, the core of which is a radical reform of local government financing, with Whitehall giving greater freedom to councils to mirror the Scottish and Welsh devolutions.
“Over the last 40 years, governments of all colours have been guilty of weakening local government... So this manifesto’s plans represent an unprecedented redistribution of power and control from the central to the local…”
That quote came in fact not from Labour, but from the Conservatives’ manifesto in 2010 – which means the “unprecedented redistribution of power” should already be well under way.
Evidence on the ground suggests otherwise. I doubt, for instance, if Somerset Levels residents reckon they’ve seen much redistribution – of power, that is, not water.
They’ve discovered the hard way that, even if their elected local drainage boards manage to persuade the unelected Environment Agency that dredging is necessary, what happens is determined by the agency’s funding from the Department for Environment.
As Yes, Minister taught us, Whitehall bureaucracy trumps local democracy every time.
You wonder whether the politicians who signed up to that 2010 decentralisation pledge ever really believed in it.
Communities and Local Government Secretary, Eric Pickles, self-admittedly didn’t.
His personal brand of ‘muscular localism’ involves effectively setting councils’ tax and spending levels and telling them how often they should empty our refuse bins.
Cities Minister, Greg Clark, at least tries to walk the localisation walk, with his City Deals policy of stimulating city-driven economic growth through negotiated packages of powers and discretions.
However, doubling until recently as Treasury Financial Secretary, few knew better than Clark where the serious power in Britain resides, irrespective of who’s in government.
It’s in Whitehall departments and ultimately Her Majesty’s Treasury.
Don’t take my word.
An Institute for Government study of the “obstacles to decentralisation” concluded that the most insurmountable obstacle is the in-built scepticism of a civil service whose worry is that local councils would “do something barmy” if handed additional powers and budgets.
It almost beggars belief, doesn’t it? The civil service folk who brought us the NHS IT programme, the poll tax, the Child Support Agency, and mothballed aircraft carriers sit around worrying about other people’s sanity and competence!
But Whitehall’s resistance doesn’t just stem from it being their powers and budgets that opposition parties want to devolve.
Far worse, the beneficiaries would be a collection of local councils that senior civil servants regard with a mixture of disdain and distrust.
It amounts to a culture of centralist contempt, and is naturally seen most obviously in the big things: local government’s huge dependence on central funding, the centre’s stranglehold on councils’ housebuilding, planning, and indeed their total budgets.
If you work in local government, though, it’s probably the smaller things – the almost daily drip, drip of petty insult, distrust, denigration and condescension – that really depress.
Let me illustrate with two recent particularly irksome drips.
First, thwarted by Cabinet colleagues from reducing the council tax referendum trigger from an increase of two per cent to 1.5 or even one per cent, Pickles immediately put before Parliament alternative proposals he claimed would protect ‘hard-working families’ from their greedy councils: requiring them to publish, as a matter of record, each councillor’s individual vote on any council tax changes.
But he discovered that most council budget votes last year were by show of hands, with just the result recorded in the minutes.
Pickles implies this represents something underhand, despite, as a onetime council leader, knowing full well this is how most council votes are taken – a ‘named vote’ being taken only if called for by, in Birmingham, at least ten councillors.
In most council votes, as in Parliament, councillors vote with their party, and when one party has a clear overall majority, a named vote simply wastes time.
If Pickles feels the annual setting of the council tax is uniquely important, that’s fine. But pretending that recorded votes will enhance local accountability and keep tax rates down deceives his hard-working families.
My second case is an archetypal central government gaffe – what happens when you legislate from the centre without adequate consultation or scrutiny.
This time it was the Bedroom Tax (or Spare Room Subsidy).
The legislation should have exempted working-age tenants who had been living at the same address and entitled to claim housing benefit continuously since January 1996.
Basic as it seems, it didn’t – meaning that estimated tens of thousands of tenants, and over 2,000 in Birmingham alone, are entitled to refunds of around £640 for 40 weeks of undue reductions.
To ordinary citizens, expecting perhaps at least a hint of humility, the DWP’s response to councils might seem extraordinary, and even for those of us only too familiar with the ways of central government, it was a minor classic.
First, they disputed all local government and housing professionals’ estimates of the numbers.
Their methodology calculated that “very few” households – maybe 5,000 – were affected.
Secondly, no, they wouldn’t disclose their methodology, even to the Local Government Association.
Finally, while the DWP would of course close the loophole, councils could pay for the department’s unfortunate slip-up by footing the bill for identifying, locating and refunding the relevant claimants.
And you thought maybe I was exaggerating, talking of a centralist culture of contempt?
- Chris Game, the Institute of Local Government Studies at the University of Birmingham