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.