Wednesday, February 21, 2007

Local Government

Yawn, not exactly the most interesting subject, but here goes.

A couple of weeks ago, before I went on holiday, Sir Sandy Bruce-Lockhart and someone else (I think the name was Julian Myserson) described as a Guardian journalist and former London Labour Councillor (but I can't google that combination to get the right name) debated on Radio 4 changes needed in local government to get more involvement.

In short Sir Sandy was saying give us more power and the other guy was saying pay us properly. Also neither seemed to recognise the force of the others argument.

The truth is you need a several changes, a virtuous circle of a number of changes that will re-enforce each other to improve the standing and purpose of councils and increase relevance and interest in them. And both of these contributors were right.

Localism - Sir Sandy's point, give more power to the councils and let them have the freedom to govern their areas. In the council elections I'm running for this May, I'm told that have freedom to spend approx 4% of the budget. The rest of what we raise has to be spent the way Tony Blair's government wants it spent.

Professional Pay - Julian's point - Councillors need to be paid something approaching a proper allowance or salary. Oxfordshire County Council pays a basic allowance of 7k/year and expects a minimum of a day a week from its councillors. The really good people that you want running these organisations could easily earn £100k+ elsewhere. I'm not suggesting we pay that, but it seems a lot of Conservatives see it as a plus when their Councillors are working for peanuts. This greatly limits the people we can attract.

Two other points to make:-

- Unitary authority - Rather than the multi-tier council operations that exist in many shire counties, we should have a single authority responsible for all. No wonder hardly anyone turns to vote in local elections, most people haven't got a clue what council/service/issues they're voting for. In fact of the 30% who do, I bet a significant number do so because of a duty to vote rather than a clear understanding of what they're voting for. (Caveat here is that the current proposed reforms are exactly this, but are providing an excellent means for the Labour government to undermine well run Tory shire councils.)

Many rightly argue that multi-tier systems work fine in many places and in an operational sense they are correct. In a political or democratic sense that may not be so, but we mustn't break the good governance in pursuit of electoral utopia.

- Local fiscal accountability with revenue raising powers - The basic problem is most Councils raise only about 15% max of what they spend, the rest coming from Whitehall. This creates a gearing effect that means small reductions in central Government grant have a huge impact on the local council tax; it is genuinely not under their control.

The LibDems present their solution as a local income tax, but as often is the case with them it is a potentially good principle, spoiled by PC gibberish, bureaucracy and contradictions. The Direct Democracy group proposed raising sales tax (VAT) locally. Not all questions were answered by their research, but they made the good point that current central government grants almost equals the VAT take nationally. This implies a move to separation of local and central government without complex and drawn out transitory arrangements. Much better.

There's probably others as well, we must take time to make the changes and it will be painful at first, but all done together and we will achieve a great thing; restoral of a proper functioning local democracy.

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