I will write about local public service issues especially citizen empowerment, participatory budgeting, partnership working, local democracy and performance management.
Monday, 15 April, 2013
Let’s leave aside arguments about the Ding Dong song, celebrations or state funerals and the rest. I want to focus on the legacy of Margaret Thatcher for local government.
Hostility to local government
The general consensus from those who knew her was that Thatcher loathed local councils. One of her closet allies, Nicholas Ridley, famously set the tone for her government’s attitude by arguing that councils should only have one meeting a year to let out the contracts on all their services to private bidders!
Immediately on taking office, Thatcher proposed major curbs on the activities of trade unions and cuts to local government funding (ring any bells …?). She then introduced centralised block spending grants with a system of targets and penalties for “over-spenders”.
When councils resisted, she introduced centralised “rate-capping” where councils could not set local rates (the precursor to Council Tax) above a Government-prescribed limit. When councils used creative accounting techniques to avoid the limit, the Government successfully urged that Labour councillors be surcharged by the courts.
Hostility to local democracy too
Even more outrageously, when the Greater London Council led by Ken Livingstone continued to oppose the Government on a range of issues, she introduced legislation to abolish it altogether, despite huge opposition in London to this attack on democracy.
Famously, of course she went on to introduce the infamous poll Tax, which eventually led to her downfall, due to its intense unpopularity, and the resulting decline in the fortune of the Tory Party itself.
And of course, one should not forget that Thatcher also began the long drive to privatise previously public services – gas, electricity and water all in the 1980s.
Taken overall, the Thatcher government had a hugely negative impact on local government. No other government has done more to undermine and restrict the powers of local authorities.
Thatcher legitimised the idea and practice of central government restricting and tightly controlling local government finances – to a degree that was unheard of here or abroad. Local government has never managed to regain control from central government.
Worse, Thatcher also managed to make the whole issue of local government taxes thoroughly toxic. Forever associated with the Poll Tax, its successor - the Council Tax - is seen as a huge wasteful burden on citizens in a way that income tax is not. Local government arguably lost not just a battle but the whole war over the role of local taxation under Thatcher.
Finally, abolishing a layer of local government (the GLC) simply because she took a dislike to it and initiating the privatisation of council services – begun under Thatcher and continued at different paces by successive governments since – epitomises a government that changed the mould decisively, perhaps for ever, by relegating local government to a second-rate and ever-declining role in local communities.
Thursday, 28 February, 2013
Another month, another IPSOS MORI poll on Trust.
Earlier this month, they asked people whether generally speaking they would trust groups of people to tell the truth. Top of the list were doctors (89% said Yes), teachers (86%), scientists (83%) and judges (82%).
Bottom of the list were politicians generally with a princely 18%. They were behind journalists and bankers both on 21%, MPs generally on 23% and estate agents on 24% (Interestingly, trade union leaders fared better on 41% than business leaders on 34%).
To be trusted less than bankers, journalists and estate agents is quite a feat. And I suspect it will be galling to many hard-working local councillors, who absolutely do not deserve such a bad reputation.
I suspect a number of reasons – all interacting and mutually reinforcing. First, politicians are seen as part of the socio-economic elite; economically, socially and intellectually separate from and generally disinterested in “ordinary” people. Second, the expenses scandals and ferocious protection of their salary/pension and benefits levels have reinforced the view that politicians expect one rule for themselves and another for everyone else.
I think there are other more profound political reasons too. On most of the really major international and national political issues, there is little practical difference between the main political parties: the environment, austerity, NATO, Iraq & Afghanistan. For most people increasingly, they are “all the same”.
And there is some truth in this view – the centre ground has indeed become much more crowded. Few voices are taken remotely seriously outside that “consensus”. Votes for and membership of the main political parties continue to fall. In Italy, an anti-parties comic has just scored nearly 25% of the popular vote. Anti-establishment voices are becoming more credible.
All this neatly brings me to some news that some of you may have already heard about – others may not. I’ve been selected by the Green Party to be their parliamentary candidate for Brighton Kemptown constituency at the next general election.
I know that some of you reading this will not necessarily find the Green Party to your taste. That’s fair enough. I hope that won’t deter you from taking my blog posts and my professional credentials seriously.
I will shortly be setting up a website for my candidacy so that those of you interested in that side of things can follow my progress and campaign work. Brighton Kemptown adjoins to the east the constituency of Caroline Lucas, the UK’s first Green Green MP, and I intend to fight a vigorous campaign. If you would like to offer any support, please just email me: firstname.lastname@example.org
Wednesday, 16 January, 2013
New Year Resolution
It is commonplace after eating one’s own body weight in chocolate over Xmas to adopt a weight-related New Years Resolution. But this is the resolution that should have been adopted by every person working in local public services:
“I will redouble my efforts to explain why public services are important because they offer a greater degree of public accountability. In the difficult debates on local budgets over the next year, I will make sure that I give the public and services users as much say as possible on how they are spent.”
Public is best
It is a dangerous myth that it doesn’t matter who provides local public services. It does. Public services are accountable to the public – very directly in the case of some local government services. Those provided by the private sector are accountable to the shareholders – who are very likely to be major corporations with little or no interest in local citizens.
Those familiar with the US private health care system will be aware of health insurance companies for whom it was more profitable for them if certain patients died, and who acted accordingly.
The Coalition Government is increasingly strangling local government by reducing the amount of its resources and influence. In the clamour over cuts, the bigger picture is being lost – namely, that this is a dangerous attack on local democracy itself as increasingly a distant and unresponsive Government and private firms with their own agenda direct local services, with little or no accountability to people who use the services or live in the local area.
There are few better ways to excite people about democratic involvement than participatory budgeting. Here and abroad, the evidence is clear that it can reconnect people to the idea that they could and should have a say in decisions about priorities and budgets for local services.
There are important new players on the democratic scene: Police & Crime Commissioners, with a low democratic mandate, should involve the public in decisions on community safety budgets; Clinical Commissioning Groups need to engage local people in decisions on health priorities; and elected Mayors and councils across the country will soon start preparing for another budget round with increasingly difficult decisions on services and budgets.
They all need Participatory Budgeting ! And not just PB to decide on small pots of money, but a PB approach that helps them choose between and across services. That is how PB traditionally was used in Latin America and parts of Europe.
Next week, the new national PB Network meets at the University of Westminster. It will bring together PB supporters and public service workers across the country to discuss how to turn the growing support and success of PB into a commitment for all major budget decisions to use its techniques and methods. Contact me for more details on the PB Network or if you want to take forward PB in your area.
Two quick additional thoughts:
1) Fascinating new report here from IPSOS MORI on the difference in generational attitudes: http://bit.ly/ZJ0T2G
2) To those wondering why France and the UK are suddenly involved in Mali, can I just mention one word: uranium !
Thursday, 13 December, 2012
Happy Xmas from Eric Pickles !
If press reports are true, it seems that Eric Pickles and the Coalition are hoping to outlaw council tax rises for next year.
According to the local government press today, DCLG officials are frantically trying to draw up emergency legislation to prevent councils raising council tax next year. The “stick” would be the threat of Government withdrawing revenue support grant to a council that tried to do so. This follows indications that almost a half of councils planned to ignore Eric Pickles’ “incentive” to freeze the tax next year.
So, all the fine words about allowing local people to decide through referenda have gone out of the window, all the financial incentives to persuade councils to freeze council tax are revealed as bribes, and Government is resorting to the sledgehammer of legislation to force councils to do what the Government wants.
Oh, and it will probably have a further effect of destabilising and undermining councils by delaying councils’ financial settlement (due next week) until after Xmas, making it that much harder for every council to plan its budget for next year.
Of course, this may not happen. But it is clear that officials have been working on the idea – that tells you all you need to know about this Government.
The most centralist Government for a long time
My Dad always told me to judge people on what they did – not on what they said. Strip away the phoney rhetoric of “localism” and this Government is revealed in practice as centralist to the core in its dealings with locally elected councils.
If councils are only allowed to raise money when and if Government allows it, if councils can only do things that Government approves of, then there is scarcely any point in the existence of elected local coucnillors. We might as well get rid of them and let local officers implement central government dictats.
When will the LGA and all the non-Coalition political parties launch the campaign that is so clearly needed: to save local government before it finally withers on the vine?
Meanwhile, a genuine Happy Xmas and New Year from me to all my blog readers, friends and colleagues !
Tuesday, 30 October, 2012
“The End of Local Government As We Know It”?
That’s the phrase coined by Albert Bore, highly experienced local government figure and leader of the largest council in the country, Birmingham, in announcing up to £600m cuts in services over the next few years.
Is he right ? Surely this must be a polemical exaggeration, you may think. But I tend to think that yes, he is probably right.
Localism ? No, centralism gone mad
Other respected local government commentators, notably Tony Travers in LGC, have recently mourned the death of council tax, which after all is the life-blood of local government. This followed Eric Pickles’ announcement of more restraint in councils’ ability to set their own council tax level (a costly referendum is now required for any attempt to raise Council Tax above 2%, which is less than inflation!). Travers argued that this decision, together with the refusal to consider revaluation in council tax bands, means that council tax is being quietly killed off, preventing councils from having any significant control over their money-raising.
And the Government has shown a similar contempt for local government (and local citizens) over the “localisation” of council tax benefit support. You may recall that this “localisation” was accompanied by an arbitrary cost-cutting reduction of 10%. Councils were then told that as part of this “localisation” every one of them had to devise a “local” scheme, but one that could not interfere with any benefits to pensioners. And as part of “localism” they had to consult the remaining benefit recipients on how best they would like their benefits cut.
Every council in the land has been conducting a consultation with local people and council tax benefit recipients on these draft local schemes. And last week just as they almost all finished their consultations, the Government cynically announced a one-year only £100m transitional fund to cushion the blow. At one level this is obviously welcome though not enough to stop the misery the changes will cause. But at a stroke it has also undermined probably the majority of the local consultations that councils have undertaken and rendered some meaningless, as councils will now in the main be implementing the government’s preferred “localised” scheme, rather than the one they consulted on!
Council tax and council tax benefit - the story is the same: the Government reducing any room for manoeuvre for local councils – in the cynical name of “localism”. It is not localism. It is centralism gone mad.
Let’s leave aside for a moment the broader ideological argument on whether cuts in public services are essential as the Government claims. I have previously blogged that I disagree.
But whatever view you take on this, the scale of the cuts in local government finance is absolutely huge and unprecedented. It will leave most councils no option but to stop providing a large swathe of services that are currently identified as core council business.
Each council has produced its “Graph of Doom” (based on the original Barnet graph) showing how the cuts in government grant (up to 50% for some councils in the next few years) and the rising demand for children’s and elderly people’s services will squeeze out all other service provision – usually within 8 to 15 years.
This will indeed mean the end of councils as we know it. And it will be the removal of a key element of democracy and local accountability as councils become mere delivery arms for central government.
Any councillors worth their salt should be shouting from the rooftops about this slow death of local government. They should be framing their conversations with local citizens and service users to make sure that they are aware of what is happening. And they should be resisting in whatever way they can becoming the agents of the Government’s strangling of local government and its vicious cuts to local services.
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Previous Blog Posts
- » Politicians and trust
- » New Year Resolution
- » Happy Xmas from Eric Pickles!
- » "The End of Local Government As We Know It" ?
- » Localism or passing the blame ?
- » Wealth inequality - the figures are now almost unbelievable
- » Loadsamoney !
- » There IS an Alternative !
- » Government by the toffs for the toffs
- » Depressed
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