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Returning trust to local government

Peter Facey
18 February 2009

Peter Facey (London, Unlock Democracy): Yesterday David Cameron in an article in the Guardian stated “I am a confirmed localist, committed to turning Britain’s pyramid of power on its head.” Now to someone like me who believes that the centralisation of power in England is one of the great democratic deficits, this is a joy to hear.

The reason for the article and the soaring rhetoric was the publication of the Conservatives green paper on decentralisation, Control Shift – Returning Power to Local Communities.  

The paper is genuinely welcome and contains ideas such a allowing local referendums if five percent of the local electorate sign a petition and giving local authorities the power to reduce local business rates. It also talks about giving the local councils a general power of competence, which has the potential to increase Council’s power. If these specific ideas make it into the Conservative manifesto and eventually into legislation I will be genuinely pleased.

But this paper does not match David Cameron’s words and turn Britain’s power pyramid on its head.  At the risk of sounding like of a reformed Marxist one of the true tests for a localist is money, not just giving local authorities greater power to spend the money given to them, but also the power to raise and spend more of their own money. This will eventually have to involve reforming the present system of local government finance and replacing the Council Tax with a fairer system of local taxation. On this the paper is not surprisingly silent.

But sadly what is included on the Council Tax actually goes the other way. The paper again restates the idea of a Council Tax freeze with local authorities having to hold a referendum if they want to increase it. I support the right of people to trigger a referendum on a issue even on tax, but there is a world of difference between local people being able to bring a council back into line if it misjudges the local mood and central government saying you must have a referendum every time you want to raise taxes above a certain level set in Whitehall. No central government would ever accept such a constraint and nor should local government.

This touches on something else not included in the paper but is evident in some of the surrounding commentary, the issue of trust. Caroline Spelman on the today programme said that in the 1980s the Conservative Party had to centralise because of 'loony left' councils and that today, with local authorities dominated by the Conservative Party, they could afford to hand power back. This is in effect saying that if we can trust you to do good things you can have more power, but if we can't then we won't, we will curtail your power. This is not just a Tory phenomenon, similar views to this can be found right across the political spectrum.

Until we change the mindset that views local government as an agency to carry out central government's policy agenda rather than as an independent level of government with their own powers and free to follow its own policy agenda, we will not make real progress.

Ultimately the test of a true localist is not whether you empower your friends to do things you agree with, but how far you are willing to empower local communities to do things you don’t agree with.

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