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A real future for Local Government in a federal Britain

June 7, 2014 1:16 PM
By Cllr John Marriott - Deputy Leader of the Liberal Democrat Group on the Lincolnshire County Council
Originally published by East Midlands Liberal Democrats

John MarriottOver the past one hundred years or so successive national governments have gradually eroded the ability of local government to make a real difference in people's lives. What many people forget is that much of the benefits we now take for granted, such as clean water, sewerage, social housing, education, electricity and gas, to name just a few, were introduced by progressive Victorians on municipal councils up and down the country, whilst successive national governments were generally more concerned in maintaining our position as a world power by extending the British Empire and importing its natural resources for our manufacturing industries.

The trend towards even more centralisation was well under way when I first became a District Councillor in 1987. I well remember councillors going down to Number 10 to plead for more money and usually returning empty handed. Today local councils have been reduced largely to the role of commissioning bodies. The grants they receive from central government have been cut in the last four years alone by nearly 30% on average, with even more reductions to come. No wonder cuts in staff and services have proved inevitable. Some have argued that, unless there is a rethink, by the end of this decade, local government will be staring at a financial black hole of around £19 billion, with only absolute essentials like adult social services surviving in any meaningful form. Judging by the poor turnout at local elections, most of the public seem to be unconcerned. They ought to be.

It doesn't have to be this way. If all politicians could put people first instead of party loyalties, reform to local government structures and finance, together with a devolving of real power from Westminster could transform many lives and the prospects for our country as a whole.

Before we ask central government for more power, we local politicians could start by putting our own house in order. Let's begin with having less primary councils and councillors. In parts of England where reform has already taken place county and district councils have been abolished in favour of unitary authorities and the savings made in some areas have been calculated at over £80 million, with the added bonus that there is no longer so much confusion in the eyes of the public as to which council is responsible for which service. Also, proactive Town and Parish Councils could be given more responsibility to get things done in their area. The idea has been discussed on several occasions at Lincolnshire County, with all parties except the Labour Party being in favour. The problem for Lincolnshire would be how many unitary authorities would be best. I personally think that a maximum of three would be sufficient. To have just one for the whole of the county would make it even more remote than it is now. And then there is the problem of where you draw the boundaries. Ironically, we could end up with something similar to the 'Parts' of Lincolnshire, which fell victim to the local government reforms of 40 years ago!

Together with a structural reform of local government must come a reform of how we pay for the many services it still provides. The Council Tax, which was hastily cobbled together after the hated Poll Tax was abandoned, is in urgent need of reform, based as it still is on early 1990's property values and accounting as it does for only around one third of council spending. I personally would replace it will a simplified property tax (as you can't take your property abroad) and augment it with a local income tax. We could start by HMRC allowing councils to retain a small portion of current income tax rather than all of it being sucked into the treasury in Whitehall.

Finally, we come to the difficult question of how much power to devolve. Whatever happens north of the border in September, Scotland, and probably Northern Ireland and Wales as well, will be offered more responsibilities. The same should apply to the English regions. We hear talk of an English Parliament; but that would be equally contentious, as it would probably be in London, which is the problem with the current system for anyone living outside the south east. I would go for regional assemblies instead. In fact, I would like to see the United Kingdom become a federal state, rather like the USA and Germany, to name just two examples, where the role of the Federal Government is reduced largely to economic and foreign affairs and defence.

It will be interesting to see if any of these ideas form a part of the manifestos from either of the major parties in next year's General Election. I have my doubts; but you never know. Dennis Healey once said that the Liberals exist to provide ideas which the Tories and Labour can then adopt as their own. I really haven't got a problem with that. Introducing reforms, whose time might at last have arrived, would help us, both locally and nationally, face the rest of the 21st century with a degree of confidence and optimism.