Magazine article Public Finance

A Little Local Difficulty

Magazine article Public Finance

A Little Local Difficulty

Article excerpt

Each time we are presented with a chance to reform local government, there is a choice to be made. We can argue for changes that will allow councils to fulfil their constitutional role while delivering services the public demands locally. Alternatively, we can embark on a renewed bout of cynicism and pessimism.

At present, commentators are awkwardly poised between these rather different views of the situation. Even the weariest oppositionists concede that the communities and local government minister is approachable and intellectually inquiring. David Miliband's peregrinations have led him to a belief that England is over-centralised, that neighbourhoods offer a route to better governance and that city-regions could improve the economic competitiveness of urban areas. He has delayed and expanded Sir Michael Lyons' review of finance.

On the other hand, there is little evidence that this summers white paper will contain much radicalism. Surprises are out. Ministers and civil servants want people to read their proposals and see things they already expected. Thus, there is little secrecy about proposals to move towards neighbourhood governance or to strengthen city-regional collaboration. Finance will be omitted, pending the Lyons Inquiry's report in December this year.

The lack of any driving political or electoral ambition for reform is a serious weakness. In a democracy such as Britain, changes can come about only when a government feels under pressure to act. In recent years, the Blair government has again and again legislated about criminal justice. Antisocial behaviour and concerns about terrorism have turned the prime minister into a zealous proponent of reform. Moreover, he has been prepared to defend himself aggressively when attacked by liberal commentators about the curtailment of human rights that, it is alleged, has resulted from new legislation.

Within public services, New Labour has risked much to push through controversial legislation about the NHS and education. Last week, Health secretary Patricia Hewitt was booed off the stage at a conference by nurses angry about risks of redundancy and market-driven health service reforms. Government backbenchers are still hoping to slow down or halt the school reforms being pursued forcefully by Blair and his allies.

But there is no sign that Downing Street is prepared to cave in to its opponents. Public service reforms are seen as essential and inevitable. Blair might be frustrated and talk about the scars on my back' he has endured in pushing through change. Nevertheless, he is determined to continue until the job is completed.

Contrast all this determination about crime, terrorism and public services (and, for that matter, Iraq) with the mild and understated approach to local government. There is not much evidence of a determination to pursue reform in the shires and cities. Indeed, the most radical step taken by the prime minister to affect local government was the decision to scrap the 2007 English council tax revaluation. Doing nothing was certainly an option on that occasion.

It is instructive to consider the many and various obstacles to reform. Not the least of these is the antipathy of many ministers and civil servants to losing any of the control they have so carefully built up over the decades. Consider the halting and unhelpful reaction of, say, the Home Office to earlier reforms that attempted to transfer decision-making downwards. Initiatives such as the single capital pot and Local Area Agreements were seriously undermined by service departments being unwilling to allow their resources to be mixed in with those of other departments. The Office of the Deputy Prime Minister, by contrast, has done its best.

The approach of many service departments to their local provision has had the effect of limiting efforts to 'join up' services within existing Local Strategic Partnerships. The Lyons Inquiry team are very interested in what they call 'place-shaping'. …

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