A recipe for cheesecake whose instructions did not run beyond the biscuit base would be bound to disappoint. In much the same way, it was always going to be hard for the government to paint a compelling new vision for local authorities that stopped short of recasting their powers or settling their means of finance. Yesterday’s white paper contained some worthwhile ideas, but was silent on so much that it is most unlikely to rescue councils from the anonymity and obscurity to which they have been consigned by decades of centralisation under governments of both stripes.
Even after taking such a sustained mauling, local government continues to matter, affecting everything from the cleanliness of streets to the quality of education and the decency or otherwise of care available to the elderly. The government is right to want to bring this reality into sharper focus, and yesterday’s proposal to vest all executive powers in a single individual may help, by providing for clearer responsibility. Whether power will go to a directly elected mayor or a more traditional council leader is, properly, being left to local decision. In either case, the presumption will be for a four-year term, in place of the annual jockeying for position among councillors that can get in the way of strategic thinking. The effectiveness of these changes, however, will be reduced by rolling elections, which the government has failed to take the chance to ditch. In many councils, just a third of seats will continue to be contested in any given year – a system with multiple disadvantages. Accountability is blunted because the limited scope of each election leaves voters with less reason to turn out. At the same time, such frequent votes will mean some leaders’ four-year terms being cut short and many councils continuing to struggle to transcend the short term.
The paper fails to stake out a clear vision for the future structure of local government, so the current mish-mash of two-tier district and county councils in some areas, with unitary authorities in others, is set to continue. But this is no bad thing. Unitaries make it easier to understand who is in charge of services, which is why the government is offering more councils the chance to go it alone. Set against this, however, is the fact that reorganisation involves playing with boundaries and communities that people feel strongly attached to. In 1974 many grew alienated from local government after being removed from established counties, such as Rutland, or shunted into new ones, such as Humberside. The aim is to reconnect people with councils, so it is right to avoid imposing a single model from on high. On cities and regions, however, the government is not just non-prescriptive but unclear. New city-regions are hinted at, but not clearly delineated, apparently because the chancellor would prefer that any changes to regional policy were left until after the Blair era.
The core issue, however, is not local government structures but powers. If councils are given more scope to make a difference then they will be taken more seriously. Proposals yesterday included a reduction in the number of centrally-imposed targets and the removal of various ring-fences limiting discretion on expenditure. But these steps are not part of a coherent localism. Other policies continue to work in the other direction. In education, for example, the creation of academies bypasses councils, as does Whitehall’s increasing tendency to hand cash direct to schools. If not for backbench pressure, local education authorities would have been further weakened. Council tax, which covers only a fraction of local spending, remains the only locally-controlled source of funding, hampering the scope to set radically different budgets. Michael Lyons’ imminent review may see the local tax base widened. Unless that happens, talk of a new localism is likely to remain just talk.