Magazine article Public Finance

Community Crusaders

Magazine article Public Finance

Community Crusaders

Article excerpt

The guest speaker at this year's Local Government Association annual conference is Rudolph Giuliani, the personification of big city power and accountability. The presence in Harrogate next week of the former mayor of New York will be both a reminder of what local governance in England does not have - a figurehead politician with real authority and extensive powers (pace Ken Livingstone in London) - and an indication of what it might get if the centre ever agrees to loosen its grip over local or regional decision-making and fundraising.

Giuliani will be addressing the conference on leadership in local government; but one suspects that what his listeners would prefer is some idea of where they are going, a sense of purpose and direction at a time of uncertainty and opportunity. That task falls to Sir Sandy Bruce-Lockhart, the chair of the LGA, who, as leader of Kent County Council, is a Conservative politician who actually runs something, unlike his Tory colleagues at Westminster.

When the latter debate the merits of greater local autonomy, they do so from a theoretical perspective. For Bruce-Lockhart and his fellow council bosses, these are practical questions about the best way of delivering services at the most reasonable cost, unencumbered by regulations, targets, excessive inspection and unreasonable Whitehall diktats.

There is, on the face of it, a developing political consensus that decentralisation is the way forward, that control over local services has become too top-heavy. Hardly a leading politician of whatever hue makes a public pronouncement nowadays without bending the knee before the totemic concept of localism. There is deep irony here: a country where municipalism was once so strong is now having to reinvent the wheel after 30 years of relentless centralisation.

In a recent pamphlet, Direct democracy: agenda for a new model party, a group of newly elected Conservatives sought to open a fresh policy front for the party. They came up with a series of radical proposals for returning power to local communities, ranging from the election of sheriffs or commissioners to run the police to replacing VAT with a local sales tax, which would become the principal source of finance. It so happens that the amount of money raised for the Treasury by VAT (£64bn) is almost identical to the grant given by Whitehall to town halls. This would therefore allow for an unpopular tax to be scrapped, and encourage tax competition, since local authorities would have an incentive to lower their rates to attract custom and boost their revenues.

However, because some areas would have a far higher tax base than others, there would still be a need for central redistribution, which would somewhat defeat the object of the exercise. Local councils in England would also be given genuine power over issues of essentially local consequence, assuming control over the same fields of policy devolved to Scotland.

The pamphlet's subtitle, Agenda for a new model party, has a Cromwellian ring to it, and there is a touch of the Grand Remonstrance about its contents - a list of grievances against an over-mighty state and the implication that revolution is needed to address them. There was even a brief period when the authors toyed with the idea of calling it just that, a Grand Remonstrance, though they baulked at the prospect of being dubbed the Tory Roundheads.

But is a revolution really needed or are matters already in hand that will lead to a gradual re-empowerment of local government?

From the LGAs vantage point, the signs are promising. The appointment to the Cabinet of a minister for communities and local government gives councils extra clout where it matters. David Miliband, the new minister, has made all the right noises about 'partnership, engagement and delivery' and appears to be an enthusiastic champion of greater local autonomy and empowerment. He is in favour of giving communities a bigger say in their affairs, he talks about civic pride for the modern age' and wants to tap into the 'local dynamism' that he detects in town halls across the country. …

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