There’s good news from the government. They are honouring their promise to free Councils to make decisions on behalf of local people. Out goes the regional top down housing targets, as we have discussed. But also out goes the whole grisly package of the Comprehensive Area Assessments, a raft of boxes to tick, forms to fill in , Inspectors to handle and guidance to follow from Whitehall. The idea is to give Councillors more control and authority. It sweeps away a lot of the expensive back office work that Labour insisted on, and gives Councils more freedom to decide what they will do – and more importantly what they need not do.
Some Councillors are asking how they should use their new freedoms. I hope they will set new housing targets that are much more realistic, to keep more of our greenfields and to protect existing homes from backland development and town cramming. I trust they will sweep away the framework of partnerships, bureaucratic responses to Whitehall and the monitoring industry which has been forced on them in recent years. They can slim down the administration, and just collect the modest range of facts and figures they need to run the main services and report to the electors. When I first pressed for the abolition of the target and monitoring regime it cost around 5% of total local authority expenditure, so it’s removal gives good scope for reducing costs on things we don’t need.
This has been a long personal campaign for me. I first proposed greater freedom for Councils in the 2001-5 Parliament, and got much of it adopted for the 2005 Conservative Manifesto. Caroline Spelman, as Shadow Secretary of State in the last Parliament was happy to pick it up and run with it, and now Eric Pickles turns out to be a great reforming Secretary of State who is pushing ahead rapidly to let Councils out of their Whitehall prison.
I would like to reassure Councillors that I see no need for 40% cuts in important services, or even the mooted 25% cuts. I am arguing against any such extreme, as the overall figures for public spending for the next five years show small cash increases. One good thing that Labour did do for Wokingham Borough was ensure that the schools budget is 100% grant financed from the centre, putting an end to the many arguments we had had over the years about whether Wokingham received enough grant for schools. As this is the biggest single service, and as I expect the schools budget to end up with similar cash spending figures to today’s for subsequent years, the pressures should be containable on the main service.
As I said before the election, Labour had found no cash for a new Wokingham school and I did not expect any new government after 2010 top be able to afford one in the next few years either. So it has proved. It is another reason to be low on the housing targets. The non schools services will need to do more for less, but the more that the central overhead can be trimmed in response to new freedoms, the more the important social services and others can be protected. We need to get as much private capital into the Town Centre scheme as possible, as we do not have surplus taxpayer cash from here to carry out what needs to be a commercial development. What Segro are doing at Winnersh triangle shows, the way, where huge private investment is going into creating the places for the local jobs of the future.