Do Councillors want to be free?

On Monday a group of MPs were reviewing the government’s progress with a couple of Ministers. In the discussion time and again issues came up about how local government would respond to their new freedoms. MPs are very conscious that many a new government has set out planning to grant more freedoms to Councils and to live with the results, only to end up regulating and controlling them more. Margaret Thatcher stepped in when ratepayers were unhappy with the high level of local taxes and imposed a cap on how much Councils could tax. Labour arrived in office in 1997 keen to give Councils more powers, only to sink them under the biggest weight of circulars, regulations , controls and money with strings attached that local government has ever seen. By April 2010 local government in the UK was just the outpost of Whitehall in each community, implementing Labour’s policies across the board.

The Coalition government has so far moved swiftly and purposefully to restore recently lost and long lost freedoms to local government. More of the money will be sent as a single grant so Councils can choose how to spend it. Regional plans and housing targets have been torn up. The Comprehensive Area Assessments that brought so much bureaucracy and control over Councils are being abolished.

The way is now open to Councillors to show leadership and to innovate in their localities. They no longer have to do so many things because the government is telling them to do so. By the same token they now have to defend how the money is being spent and how the planning decisons are being taken, as they are truly their decisions.

I welcome this. My one misgiving is there is a generation of senior officers in local government who only know how to work under Labour’s top down down target driven highly bureaucratic system. Their first impulse when they hear of the Coalition’s changes is to ask “What have they put in place of whatever the government is scrapping?” “What does the government want us to do instead?” The answer is simple. The government is not putting things in place of centralised plans, guidance and demands. It is just saying “serve your electors and local communities, and answer to them for the services you provide and the tax you raise”.

Let me go a little futher today in helping Conservative Councillors. What should they do? The first task is to cut the central overhead substantially to reflect the new reality. Far fewer senior officers are needed in the new regime, as there is no longer that demand for so much communication with central government, and so much work to comply with circulars, guidance and the special grants regimes. Put on a strict no recuitment policy and use natural wastage to run down numbers,reorganising posts as people leave.

The second task is to end all those partnerships and networks that slowed the system down and wasted so much senior time. If you need to involve an outside body in a policy then do so when you need to in the easiest way possible. If you want to know the local mood then Councillors can tell the Council- that is their job to gauge it.

The third task is to concentrate Council activities on core services which are valued by the local communtiy, and take the Council out of other areas where it need not interfere or spend money.

The fourth task is to ensure local schools are driving up standards, and understand the new freedoms for Heads and teachers which the government is granting.

The fifth task is to set realistic building targets and create a suitable local plan which allows growth but also protects those parts of the landscape that local people value.

The sixth task is to buy better, to cut costs.

The aim should be a lower Council tax. It can be delivered whilst raising standards in the core services. This government’s changes allow a large reduction to be made in the overhead.

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25 Comments

  1. David Price
    Posted July 14, 2010 at 6:38 am | Permalink

    Can I suggest the first task is for a clear statement of what a council is responsible for, what it must do as a minimum, not just the thigs it would like to do. This needs to be easily accessible public information and a council must clearly account for it's performance against those requirements.

    I have not been able to find such a thing for Wokingham for example, and without it I have no way to determine if the council is spending my money effectively on what it must as well as things the CEO and public servants "find exciting" or might wish.

    • Alan Jutson
      Posted July 14, 2010 at 8:04 am | Permalink

      David a point well made, and probably one that the Council may well ask of the Government.

      Because we have travelled so far down the Socialist /Communist route of top down directives, many who work for the Council may feel absolutely lost for a while.

      Most local Authorities have been no more than Benefit and Tax centres who's primary object seemed to be to collect and distribute money.

      I truely hope that Councils (Wokingham in particular) can rise to the challenge and get on with what used to be local the local business of, street cleaning, resurfacing roads, lopping trees, clearing ditches, looking after parks and Public places, refuse collection, removal of gaffiti, removal of speed humps and the like as well as recognising the Planning concerns of the local residents.

      My fear is that we do not have the people with the mindset to do it, After 13 years of control, many original and independent thinkers have long since left.

      • Cliff
        Posted July 14, 2010 at 12:39 pm | Permalink

        Power needs to be given back to the elected councillors and taken away from the "council officers." This will be difficult because so many of these little Stalinists have been building up their empires over a number of years and they will not give it up easily or without a fight.
        As I have suggested before on here, but it is worth repeating; our local authorities have become smaller versions of the EU…..Unelected commissioners, (officers in LAs) dictating what the elected MEPs (councillors in LAs) should do, with the latter just rubber stamping the diktats.
        I agree with another poster; we need to clearly define what the role of the state and all it's tentacles actually is, including local government. Most people I speak to, want smaller government and a return to freedom from state interference in so many aspects of their lives.
        We need to move away from the socialist model and return democracy to our country, assuming our country still exists under the EUSSR.

  2. Posted July 14, 2010 at 7:13 am | Permalink

    A far too clever remark: Do you remember Plato's analogy of the Cave when someone staggers out into the sunlight and sees reality, then rushes excitedly back into the cave to tell everyone? They see him as a madman! They are used to living in darkness looking at the shadows on the wall.
    Ahem!

    • Amanda
      Posted July 14, 2010 at 9:19 am | Permalink

      Maybe those of us who live in the 'sunlight', should offer to help the onese from the cave adujust to the new reality. Maybe we need to get involved more !!

  3. Posted July 14, 2010 at 7:59 am | Permalink

    I would add another. Be prepared to hold local referendums on issues that seriously divide the community, new supermarkets, new housing estates, wind farms , zero policy policing.etc.and stick by the result.. I agrre with David Price. It is up to the government to spell out the basics a council should do.

  4. Posted July 14, 2010 at 9:46 am | Permalink

    I'm not sure that a lot of Councillors do want to be free. Many like the job for the prestige (and the money/perks) that it brings, but don't really want responsibility and have been glad to hide behind Whitehall.'s skirts
    Many others are intimidated by the permanent officials, who see themselves as the bosses, pay themselves accordingly, and invoke all sorts of indirect threats to get their way. The suggestion that Councillors could be liable for their actions if they ignore "professional advice" seems to work effectively. We need a new breed of local Councillors who, ideally have some management experience and who are capable of keeping their overpaid officials in order.
    As a result, too many Councillors just "go with the flow", knowing that little blame can be attached to them if they do what they are told, whilst enjoying the perks.
    Yes, I've known one or two good Councillors, but regrettably I have a very poor opinion of the majority.

    • Posted July 14, 2010 at 9:34 pm | Permalink

      Please see my comment below regarding the Standards Board and Code of Conduct. When I was a county councillor, 35 years ago, we would not have brooked such impertinence from our employees.

  5. simon
    Posted July 14, 2010 at 9:47 am | Permalink

    If local governments had to collect a greater proportion of what they spend they might become more careful with it .

    How about moving the balance of funding of local government away from the central government grant towards increased local taxation ?

    It very probably makes good economic sense to pay 72% of a local government clerical workers childcare costs but how many of them appreciate how well they are being paid compare with their neighbours in the outside world .

  6. Brigham
    Posted July 14, 2010 at 10:57 am | Permalink

    Asking councilors to make the necessary decisions, is the old "turkeys voting for Christmas" problem. These people,some of them, "little Hitlers" will try to hang on to power like grim death. Only government will be able to unseat them. I'm afraid you have a lot more work ahead of you, before you can loosen the reins on local government.

  7. Posted July 14, 2010 at 11:37 am | Permalink

    In my view, no-one prepared to kowtow to the Standards Board and Code of Conduct has the independence of mind to deal with upstart and insolent officials. I gather this Stalinist regime is to be swept away; and this is a prerequisite for getting properly effective councillors.

  8. Derek Buxton
    Posted July 14, 2010 at 11:50 am | Permalink

    I agree with English Pensioner above. It is a good idea but will be undone by the local councils. The fact that they operate a "cabinet system" leads to secrecy and a closed loop. Our council gave money to the struggling local football league club but have refused to say how much, but it is our money not theirs, and there lies the problem. Like government, they think all money is theirs, it isn't, it is provided only as the Country produces and people can afford and are willing to pay taxes.

  9. Robert
    Posted July 14, 2010 at 12:30 pm | Permalink

    The posts here reflect widespread concern about devolving power to local councils – many people have an even lower opinion of local councillors than they do of MPs and are fearful of a repeat of the abuses, for example, in Liverpool in the 1980s. Having been someone who felt that national government was the lesser of two evils, my view has changed. Localism is the better route, but for real accountability the core unit of local government should not be the county or district but the parish. There are two reasons for this. First, in parish comprising a small number of hundreds of people there is a much better chance that those elected will be known personally to voters. Moreover, there would be an intimate connection between taxes and spending. Second, if key decisions were taken at parish level there would be two opportunities to vote: i) at election time and ii) with one's feet. If one became truly fed up with parish policies one could move to a neighbouring parish without having to dislocate entirely one's place in the local community.

  10. Lola
    Posted July 14, 2010 at 12:33 pm | Permalink

    Just let the taxpayers money follow the child/patient. That'd sort 90% of the problems and unload 90% of the quangocrats.

  11. Lindsay McDougall
    Posted July 14, 2010 at 12:48 pm | Permalink

    Does the Westminster Conservative government want Councillors to be free? Was is not John Major who said that local councils were never meant to be a power in the land? Was is not Mrs Thatcher who capped rates? Was is not a series of Conservative governments that progressively ceded power to the European Commission, thus increasing the temptation to recoup power by medelling further down?

    Don't worry, we have not suffered the most. Under Communism, there was 70 years of freedom being suppressed, of the best people being done down, of counter evolutionary measures. Our losses have been comparitively light.

  12. Alan Wheatley
    Posted July 14, 2010 at 2:24 pm | Permalink

    The solution to new local authority freedom followed by more central government regulation comes from a clear understanding of responsibility, authority, accountability and resources.

    The first thing the public must have clear in their minds is who is responsible for what. They can then hold the appropriate people to account.

    But government also near to bear in mind that those they wish to take on the responsibility must be given the authority to be able to carry out those responsibilities, and the resources must match the task.

    Then the correct people will get the plaudits and the blame.

  13. Brian
    Posted July 14, 2010 at 2:26 pm | Permalink

    And councillors including Conservative ones should stop voting themselves huge increases in allowances.

  14. Acorn
    Posted July 14, 2010 at 2:28 pm | Permalink

    They don't want to be free; it would frighten the life out of them. They need to be free of trade unions. They need to be elected every two years. They need an executive Mayor, with a brain that can do sums. Everyone works for the Mayor at his pleasure. The Mayor appoints his own directors on three year contracts renewable yearly. The elected Councillors form the legislature; the Mayor has the power of veto. They need to raise the majority of their income locally by LVT or a straight property tax. That way, you can put a price to the next rate increase every time the planning committee turns down an application. (Keeping all those green fields – and the housing waiting list – will be paid for by the local property tax payers; if that's their choice.)

  15. S Matthews
    Posted July 14, 2010 at 3:01 pm | Permalink

    It seems to me that its far more difficult to discover just how money is being spent in local councils than it is for national government. Or at least if the money is being spent wisely.
    Is there a body that will audit council spending and provide comparisons between councils?

  16. Rory
    Posted July 14, 2010 at 5:38 pm | Permalink

    At present, I cannot get too excited about whether or not power is returned to local government. First, I should like to know what is this government's attitude to the 'affordable housing' tax now being imposed by Local Authorities. Are they in agreement that it should be left to Local Authorities to set the level of this tax which is now being imposed , not on change of use like Development Land T ax, but solely on residential developments?

  17. Acorn
    Posted July 14, 2010 at 6:40 pm | Permalink

    Every council is required by statute to produce a Statement of Accounts for the financial year. For the layman it will be difficult to read because it uses the CIPFA format and wording. You will not be able to spot how much was paid out for early retirements for instance. It will be audited by an accountant from the Audit Commission, who may as well not have bothered, as far as the Council Tax payer is concerned.

    If your council is a housing authority in the south; you may spot how much of the rent income from welfare (council) housing, was sent up north. Don't bother asking your local councillor to explain it, because he/she will not have a clue. The vast majority of what your council spends will be by central government diktat. Your elected councillors will have heated budget debates, in Council, about factors which will involve at most a few percent of your councils spending.

    The system will not change until Councils are treated like PLCs and prepare there accounts in a PLC manner. If you want a good question to ask, try this. "How many years of council tax income will it take to cover our deficiency in the the local government pension scheme".

  18. Deborah
    Posted July 14, 2010 at 6:59 pm | Permalink

    I agree with English pensioner too – but there is a BIGGER PROBLEM here.

    But what we really need is a mechanism for that new breed of councillor to hold the senior officers AND the leading councillors to account. Right now, if the senior officers and the cabinet are happy they can ignore everone else – and the consitution, and the law. The governance agencies are failing – the audit commission just concentrates on ticking boxes and the standards board passes everything back to the council to be sorted out by a committee advised by the senior officers.
    There is NO accountability.
    Unless something changes, this new breed of councillors will just be ignored until, fed up with being ostracised and banging their heads against a brick wall, they eventually move on to something more productive outside the council.
    I
    f more powers are to be passed down to local councils this really does need sorting out quickly.

  19. trevor thomas
    Posted July 15, 2010 at 6:02 pm | Permalink

    I wholeheartly agree with what john redwood has said,but is this for england only ? or does it include everyone in the uk.

  20. A.Sedgwick
    Posted July 16, 2010 at 12:39 pm | Permalink

    'Workshy' German unemployed handed food coupons and clothes vouchers instead of cash payments – DM 16/07/2010

    Our taxes are too high and we are living way beyond our needs. We cannot afford overseas aid, the EU, Afghanistan, welfare for the workshy and misguided, the current NHS, illegal immigrants and bogus asylum seekers, state employee pensions above £50k p.a.

    If we got to grips with the big ticket items late company tax problems would pale into insignificance.

  21. Posted July 16, 2010 at 12:40 pm | Permalink

    All sounds rather wonderful John but in my experience the staff who work in local government need to firstly understand what they are responsble for and secondly be skilled to carry it out. I watch with interest.

  • About John Redwood


    John Redwood won a free place at Kent College, Canterbury, He graduated from Magdalen College Oxford, has a DPhil and is a fellow of All Souls College. A businessman by background, he has been a director of NM Rothschild merchant bank and chairman of a quoted industrial PLC.

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