Nationalised and centralised local government

The Department for Communities (and local government) has an apparent annual total budget of £39,686,000,000 including capital. This, however, leaves out the main financing of schools through the new centralised schools grant, another £23,000,000,000. There are other discontinuities and recharges in the figures which mean the budget does not capture the full picture of local government spending.

The Department’s annual report does not make good reading. Between the department and local government they are making heavy weather of the very centralised target system this government has put in. DSO 3 “to build prosperous communities” has not yet been assessed, which is perhaps just as well in the middle of a recession which is doing lots of damage to prosperity. We are told there is “no progress” with DSO 5 to provide “a more efficient, effective and transparent planning system” . The PSA target to improve the “effectiveness and efficiency of local government” is “not met”. PSA target 21 to “build more cohesive, empowered, active communities” has not been assessed.

Doesn’t it just go to show how absurd all this top down effort to control and direct local government has become? If they want to run everything, why do we pay for Councillors and Chief Officers in Councils to do it as well? Wouldn’t it be better to sweep away the panoply of central targets and controls, and let Councils get on with it? We can always kick out Councillors when Councils don’t perform or waste too much money. When we costed this for the 2005 Conservative manifesto it would have saved £1,000,000,000 of central overhead. It will be much more four years on.

The department has 123 staff earning more than £100,000. It has 75 staff in communications. It spent £54,000,000 on consultancies and interims last year. Councils spend £1,589,000,000 on economic development, on top of the regional and national budgets.

There is considerable scope here for savings at the national level. Individual Councils also need to decide how many corporate strategists, networkers, strategic partnerships and all the rest they really need, as they now have a small army each to talk the talk with the crazy language of Whitehall bossiness, interference ,advice and targets. There are too many box tickers on both sides, so let’s have fewer boxes to tick. We need fewer strategic partnerships and more concentration on each Council’s core functions.

Looking at many a Council’s management structure the viewer is mesmerised both by the very large numbers of well paid senior officers, and by the array of job titles which tell you nothing about what if anything they really do. They need these people to conform to the government’s wasteful and jargon filled view of how Councils should work. If they don’t do it this way they get black marks and lose their stars. Whitehall treats Councils like primary school pupils. Gone are the days when there was a Head of Education, a Head of Social Services, a Finance Head, and a few other sensible titles and roles. Now there are Heads of Strategic Partnerships, Heads of corporate strategy, all sorts of roles for networkers and “business services”. It would be good to hear from you about some of the silly job titles and overlaps in your local Council.


  1. Colin D.
    July 27, 2009

    The local council here has a self styled ‘Cabinet’. This is pretentious and opens the door to paying lots of people generous salaries, bonuses, and over the top expenses. And yes, important sounding job titles to help justify the cash being raked in.

  2. Michael
    July 27, 2009

    Not quite what was requested, but there are organisational equivalents of the sily job titles you talk about: the chapel at Livingston Hospital, for example, is called… the ‘Department of Spiritual Care’. Bonkers.

  3. no one
    July 27, 2009

    when i lived in a big city I complained about the renewal of a late licence to a bar which was downstairs to our flat, the bar was licenced to open until midnight most days and 2 in the morning on some days.

    knowing that several residents had complained previously, and had been forced to move out of the area due to poor behaviour of the bar management and their customers I felt a morale duty to complain

    the bar thought nothing of putting big speakers out on the street blasting loud music late into the night, and even the on call environmental health people would agree they were out of order

    the council put together a big dossier for the hearing which was largely pro bar, with many many mistakes, without having ever spoken to me, attended the hearing in force, probably about 20 full time staff from the council there, and its was obvious that ordinary member of the public stood no chance versus expensive lawyers

    and of course the licence was renewed, and later extensions granted as the owners requested

    so of course all the decent folk continue to move out, and prostitutes and drug dealers move in, and the fantastic urban living environment is not so fantastic anymore

    which compares and contrasts badly with how relationships between residents and bars are managed in say belgium

    we have too many staff on the public pay roll involved, the voice of the decent folk is hardly heard at all, and they mostly end up moving as complaints are a waste of time

    managing such stuff could be done so much more efficiently with far fewer heads

  4. Mike Stallard
    July 27, 2009

    I am trying to find something nice to say about this. I suppose it keeps a lot of men and women off the dole and makes them feel important. Also, of course, it provides a sort of career structure for graduates in political studies/university student unions/ children of politicians/ to make loads a money. We also give work, and hope of a huge pay check, to a lot of people who can do nothing much else.

    The really bad thing, apart from the enormous waste of precious public money (we are currently rapidly approaching a trillion pounds of debt nationally) is the stultification. In order to do anything, you have to get permission from every single one of these numpties.
    Our local Free Car Park was suddenly given a huge charge. Nothing we could do.
    Meanwhile our Council Charges go up every year. Nothing we can do.
    Our children have to go to a failing Comprehensive where 3/4 of the pupils leave with no qualifications worth speaking of. Nothing we can do.
    Oh our (Conservative) Council has just won an award for being the very best Council in England!

  5. John Moss
    July 27, 2009

    One target!

    Councils should raise 50% of what they spend from their electorate.

    They should be allowed to do it through any method they wish, provided it is approved in a local referendum, or from a list of “approved” schemes from Government – and which could also be any scheme approved in any referendum in any council.

    These could include: Council Tax as existing; flat rate charges; local sales tax; local income tax; local business rates; hotel room charges; parking taxes; congestion charges; bin taxes.

    Any or all of the above at rates set locally to suit local circumstances.

    Then give them powers back from Regional Quangos like RDAs and scrap Regional Assemblies.

    Reduced costs and re-invigorated local government would follow.

  6. Julian Gall
    July 27, 2009

    It seems to me there is a fundamental problem with local government. Local communities (and voters) are encouraged to think that their council is their local government, implementing their wishes. However for many purposes, the function of a council is to be a branch office of national government. This is why central control of local affairs comes so naturally to some politicians and bureaucrats.

    We need to start by separating out the functions of national government which require local implementation for efficiency (e.g. housing benefit, trading standards) and truly local functions, which are decided by communities (e.g. rubbish collection). The national functions should be run on a consistent model throughout the country and be clearly outside the interest of the council. This would avoid reinventing the wheel. Local functions should not be interfered with from central government and should clearly be subject to voters’ wishes.

  7. Acorn
    July 27, 2009

    Too many noughts in the consultancies number me thinks?

    I wish you luck trying to separate central government from local government, though it does need doing. Local government still spends a quarter of total government spending, but only raises locally a mere sixth of that quarter.

    Don’t blame local councillors, they will not know where 95% of the money is going and will never read the budget detail data. A smart one may notice that their council still has people trying to collect outstanding “Poll Tax”. They will be offered a few scraps by the officers at budget time to fight over, just so the Council can get near to the “norm” required by DCLG, for council tax rises.

    Strictly for the nerds, PESA 2009 shows great detail of the three primary spending sectors, central government, local government, and public corporations. Start with table 1.15.

  8. Neil Craig
    July 27, 2009

    Take out the eduction budget & let the voucher scheme work, possibly take out roads & then give them a flat rate grant (probably about £2,000 per head & let them work. This flat rate would have to be phased in because currently rate support grants vary widely, but it would give a strong incentive to economic competence since at that level the best coucils would be chargein zero community charge (or less) & the worst would be facing electoral wrath.

  9. Demetrius
    July 27, 2009

    It is a source of wonder what exactly all these people do, and why. Thirty to forty years ago I recall councils running major building programmes and running a whole panoply of services with a tenth of these numbers or less. There were indeed guidelines and financial limits from Whitehall, but even there we were dealing with relatively small numbers of people at the centre. Moreover, in some sectors the provision then in some services was proportionately more than those of today.

  10. Mark M
    July 27, 2009

    Great to read these breakdowns of the way government is run. It’s truly worrying just how many very large numbers there are involved in seemingly every department.

    Out of interest, and without trying to tie you down to specifics and cut accusations, if you were starting the country again how much do you think government should cost, as % of GDP? My suspicion would be nowhere near the 50% we have this year and my feeling is that government should be able to successfully carry out its duty of passing laws and protecting its borders and citizens for easily less than 25% of GDP.

  11. John
    July 27, 2009

    It seems as if Labours skeleton in the cupboard of excessive wasteful largess is creaking open.

    Once again, it will be shown that when Labour spends money, so much goes to waste. Can they really claim that spending more money by the state actually means more positive outcomes than spending less, yet more efficiently ? They try, but the facts point to them wearing the Emperors clothes.

  12. Stuart Fairney
    July 27, 2009

    At the risk of being repetitive, privatise the schools and let education vouchers drive up standards as parents choose schools rather than having them allocated.

    You might need to give schools some kind of immunity from the local authority planning process if they are to build new classrooms expaditiously to cope with extra demand, but outside of that, it’s a winner.

    No-one ‘allocates’ what private sector supermarket I can go to and consequently, five would like my custom, and do their level best to attract it, whereas, the senior school Harry will be allocated in 11 years is woeful to the extent that I would crawl over broken glass before sending him there.

    And if the logic is “education is important, therefore the government should do it” well food is even more important so why not nationalise Tesco?

    Come on JR, get Mr Cameron to grow a pair.

  13. HC
    July 27, 2009

    There is a lot of support from local authority leaders for the removal of targets and other central government prescription.

    Any government that did this, including rolling-back the Audit Commission would both save hundreds of millions of pounds a year and preserve frontline services. Better still, it would also put the responsibility for improving services back onto local authorities (as John Seddon has argued).

    This renewed responsibility and accountability would lead to an outbreak of innovation to improve services for service users. It would certainly remove all of the ‘national level’ systems conditions that stop local services working properly and put the spotlight onto the local systems conditions that stop services working properly. That is, command and control top-down, management methods.

    Read more about systems thinking in real public sector organisations at the systems thinking review.

  14. John Smith
    July 27, 2009

    Cuts in some areas will be easy to sell to the public. But the big problem is how to make cuts in areas such as Education and Health – areas where we have promised not to.

    The answer should actually be quite simple. Start bunging in huge provisions. Provide for future re-structuring. Provide for people getting older. Provide for future tax receipts falling. Provide for future welfare benefits. Provide as much as you can find in cuts.

    You can even provide for additional spending in future years – “we are moving the spending to next year. This is not a cut, but an increase in next year’s budget – a simple delay which helps to spend money more effectively”.

    The NAO might have a thing or two to say about it, but they refused to sign off a bunch of budgets this year, so in a sense – who cares?

    Net result: Public spending appears to stay high. Debt falls. We square the circle Brown style.

  15. Richard
    July 27, 2009

    My view is that every job title with the words Strategy or Strategic cannot really exist. You cannot imagine Lord Alanbrooke using such a self-agrandising title.

    As an exercise I have just visited GuardianJobs (so you dont have to: because it is enraging):

    The largest “sectors” are in overwhelming order: Education (1271) Media (750) and Charities (698).

    Keying in the word Strategic recovers 540 jobs with this word in their description.

    Including the Strategic Director (Childrens Services) in Darwen (Lancashire) a mere £115k – £125k pa. Or the Director of Strategic Development at something called the University of Creative Arts who has to struggle by on a modest £67k-£75k pa.

    An NHS cardiac surgeon expected to perform usually two by-pass operations a day earns less than £80k pa (much less than a GP – another ludicrously over-privileged group who will have to be taken on, and wont like it!).

  16. matt
    July 27, 2009

    And whilst you’re scything through the central bureaacracy save some energy for a good hack at the nonsense of regional government and local government offices (GOSE and their ilk).

    They seem to have been set up to force Councils to spend money bidding for funds. Funds that are depleted by the very same regional government taking a cut to pay for themselves.

    Wokingham Council has a “General Manager of Policy and Partnerships”.

  17. alan jutson
    July 27, 2009

    Thankyou once again for highlighting/exposing yet more Government spending details.

    There seems to be a common theme running through all of the Departments you ahve posted on so far, and that is the huge amount spent on outside Consultants.

    From my experience Management Consultants simply tell you what any worker at the coalface will tell you, only in a different language. Rarely do Management Consultants come up with new ideas which will make any organisation more competitive.

    Most workers at the sharpe end know what the problem is with any Company or organisation, but they are never encouraged to report such through the management structure.

    Senior managers need to get their hands dirty on occassion and get into/onto the coal face, they may then learn a lot more about how their organisation works and what needs to be done to improve it, first hand.

    Local Government grants from Central Government seem to have got us in a lot of trouble over the years, with claims that Labour favour Labour Councils, and Conservatives favour Conservative Councils.

    We need a rethink, and I am slowly (but not yet convinced) getting the feeling that all local Authorities should be able to raise their own funds with a local sales tax, like they do in The US.
    Local Government/Councils then would then not have to beg for a better deal from Central Government without being blackmailed on policy.

  18. Deborah
    July 27, 2009

    It is disappointing that Conservative councils have gone along with this wasteful nonsense for so long. If more Conservative councillors were prepared to follow the Conservative principles they were elected on, instead of kow-towing to officers embelishing their own cvs, an awful lot of taxpayers money could have been saved.

  19. james harries
    July 27, 2009

    to govern is to choose; and despite all the talk of “hard choices” noone in government has made a decision on this basic question.
    Is local government local government or just the provincial arm of whitehall.
    Currently only 30% or so of local govt money is raised locally. Should any of it be? Should all of it be?
    The half way (well, third way) house we now have is a recipe for waste, lead swinging, bleeding stump demos and all the manifold ills of representation without responsibility.
    particularly absurd, i thought, was the wingeing from rich tory boroughs about their capitation allowance, which was allegedly too low because they attracted rich immigrants who didn’t appear on the census rolls…

  20. adam
    July 28, 2009

    TEENAGE killers are allowed huge plasma screen televisions and state-of-the-art computer games while they serve their sentences, it emerged yesterday.

    Violent yobs are even allowed to choose their own toilet seat covers at a young offenders’ centre so cushy it has been labelled a “holiday camp” by a former worker.

    Warren Hill houses some of the country’s toughest young thugs, including members of knife gangs.

    But Helen Stanmore, 52, a former drug misuse worker there, revealed that they have the right to order anything they want from Argos catalogues.

    Jack Straws vision of justice

    Prisoners get anything they want from the Argos catalogue but Ministers, being that much higher grade of criminal than common rapist and murderer, get anything they want from the John Lewis catalogue.
    Meanwhile fees for those who want to go to uni will jump 10,000 a year.
    The deliberate destruction of society continues

  21. Guy Herbert
    July 28, 2009

    “It spent £54,000,000,000 on consultancies and interims last year.”

    – Too many noughts perhaps? I know government is wasteful and can’t add up, but more than the entire notional budget for the department seems unlikely.

    Reply: Yes, thanks for pointing out the error.

  22. Chris Rose
    July 28, 2009

    In an attempt to answer your question, I have been looking at the website for our council (Sunderland). I am struck by how difficult it is to get information about what the Council actually does and who does it.

    The website is only too anxious to promote the names and contact information for the elected councillors, which is fair enough, and there is oodles of information about the plans, sorry strategies, they have and the services they provide. The senior officers are named, but there are no names provided for anyone else and there seems to be no information about the departmental structure and how many people are employed in each department. There aren’t any job titles and, as it’s August, the situations vacant page is unforthcoming.

    The accounts are there of course, but if you want to use the webpage to hold your council to account, it is very difficult to so. I think councils should be compelled to provide far more information about their activities.

  23. NickW
    July 28, 2009

    Targets need to be measurable and achievable.

    If they are neither, abolish them.

    Departments will fight like hell if they are given simple targets which make success or failure self evident.

    e.g.” Defra will process and pay 95% of claims within x weeks with a maximum error rate of y%.”

    “The planning system must be able to grant or reject applications for nuclear power stations within six months.”

    Failure should cause real pain to those at the top who are responsible for delivery and who get paid high salaries “because of their responsibilities”.

    How many times has something gone wrong and an enquiry has revealed that the person who gets paid a huge salary for their responsibilities as head of department, isn’t responsible?.

    Credit always passes upwards through the management, blame always passes downwards to the lowest plausible level.

Comments are closed.