Magazine article Public Finance

Put Councils in the Devolution Driving Seat

Magazine article Public Finance

Put Councils in the Devolution Driving Seat

Article excerpt

What is local government? Is it a delivery organisation, there to ensure people get a certain range and quality of services? Or, should it be the political expression of a community?

The question sounds academic, but suggests two different approaches to reforming the sector as austerity continues to bite. If councils are basically there to deliver services, then the way to save the sector is probably through a national policy fix. This view dominates February's Independent Commission on Local Government Finance, a document that blends incisive analysis with the surprising conclusion that the answer is another independent review of the problem.

The implication is that a Royal Commission could force ministers to confront issues in the 'too difficult' box. We might expect it to recommend the reorganisation of two-tier areas, the promotion of service integration and the reduction of statutory duties.

It is far from clear why the next government should want to hear these messages. Frontbenchers have ruled out top-down reorganisation because the savings do not justify the political pain and the parties think they already do promote integration. While there are splashes of colourful radicalism in proposals for 'pioneer' areas, the recommendations for universal reform amount to ending council tax referendums and allowing councils more control over fees and charges.

Yet financial reform could be a lever for a bottom-up transformation of the way local services - and democracy - work, driving change in local government structure and the ways in which councils engage their citizens. …

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