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26 April 2023

The death of local government

Westminster has been systematically stripping councils of power, funding and stature for decades. As a result, our local politics is among the most enfeebled in Europe.

By Matthew Engel

The Vowchurch Group Parish Council meets ten times a year. It represents five different parishes close to the Welsh border, randomly yoked together. Together they cover an area larger than a number of outer London boroughs, but with a population of 700.

There are almost ten miles of bad road from the northern heights of Vowchurch Common to the southern boundary in Lower Maescoed. In between, there are five churches, one school, one pub and no shops.

Three years ago I became a co-opted councillor for the parish of St Margarets, which is the normal way of joining. Tapping up is common and, like becoming secretary of the gardening club or the history society, any answer short of “No! Never!” can be construed as a yes. Only someone suspected of an ulterior motive (probably planning) might be unwelcome. Not for us the vagaries of democracy, and for a good reason.

The meetings are congenial and rarely long, if not sociable – too far to the single pub. Our chair is fair-minded, the clerk efficient, and our representative on Herefordshire Council provides regular masterclasses on why things can’t be done. My colleagues are conscientious, with a wide spread of expertise. I have yet to hear anyone raise their voice.

[See also: How might Keir Starmer run the country? Look to Labour councils]

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Also not for us is an appearance from Jackie Weaver, the Cheshire official who stood in as a clerk at a Zoom meeting of Handforth Parish Council in 2021 and, quite improperly, started chucking people out. When the video went viral, this earned her a wild ego trip through the media, which may yet end up with her eating camel penis in Australia. No genuine parish councillor has achieved such celebrity.

We function not so much as a governing body of any kind, but as a pressure group, alerting higher authority to issues, fighting our corner and offering opinions on planning applications, sometimes heeded. All of us who wanted to continue can do so, because no one else came forward to challenge us in the election on 4 May. Relief all round, but not for the normal political reasons.

The parish council’s gross income is close to £20,000. We are solvent because we have to be and our outgoing vice-chairman is a numbers man. Anyway, we have few assets that need attention, though we did repair a riverside bench a while back. But if someone had chosen to oppose any of us the cost would have come out of the £20k, and bang would go the already feeble handouts to good causes. Recently, I was in a Swiss village with a similar-sized population. Its council has an annual budget of about £2m.

It’s not just wealthy Switzerland where local government is taken more seriously than in the UK. There is evidence the British system is the most powerless, most dependent, most put-upon, most disregarded, most useless of any mature democracy. A 2020 European Commission report on local government autonomy in 39 European and OECD countries ranked the UK at 28th, below Bulgaria and Serbia. Even in rural China, as the old saying goes, “the mountains are high and the emperor is far away”. In Britain, the busybodies in London control almost everything except how rarely the dustbins are emptied, which libraries should close and how many potholes go unrepaired. These decisions are largely dictated by the starvation of funds.

[See also: Could the local elections be a damp squib for Labour? Here’s what councillors think]

In a poll of 671 English councillors conducted by the NS Spotlight team (published online and in the next issue), just 8 per cent felt their local authority area received adequate funding from central government and 22 per cent said their council was “likely” or “very likely” to go bankrupt. This is not entirely the doing of Westminster and Whitehall. The voters have passively acquiesced in the destruction of local pride and engagement. If any service is available in one town and not another, the cry goes up: “postcode lottery”.

This year’s local elections, covering some of the mish-mash of English authorities plus Northern Ireland, will barely be scrutinised for the virtues or vices of the councils themselves – but for whether or not they give the Rishi Sunak government a kicking. Only rarely does the party controlling a council get removed for its own failings, let alone get re-elected because it is any good. All politics is local, the US congressman and House speaker Tip O’Neill said. Not here. The system is moribund, a national disgrace.

Ian Ward is a Labour man, and a born-and-bred Brummie: 28 years on Birmingham City Council, leader for the last six years. He is a regular attendee at Eurocities, a body of 200 similar conurbations across Europe. Luckily, he is not a swaggerer: “My experience is that comparable cities – Lyon, Frankfurt, Barcelona – have far more powers, far more control of their destiny than we do,” he tells me.

He has a somewhat bigger budget than the Vowchurch group, £3.2bn, but the government, like an anxious, hovering “helicopter parent”, constrains its freedom of choice. “There is a lack of trust of local government that goes back decades,” Ward says. “The last transport deal supposedly offered the West Midlands £1bn. But in the end it wasn’t delivered without strings. We had to make a business case for every item, and if we wanted to change anything we had to go back and ask permission.”

Then there is the sit-up-and-beg routine: the competitive bid process whereby Whitehall holds out a few nibbles to feed hundreds of yapping councils. “In January they moved the goalposts after the levelling-up bids were submitted and inserted a rule that if you were successful in Stage 1, you would be unlikely to succeed in Stage 2,” said Ward. “So we wasted £350,000 on a bidding process that didn’t really exist.”

[See also: In defence of Town Hall “fat cats”]

There is, Ward admits, a vicious circle. Local government is not the sexiest career option for officials or aspirant politicians. Once, it was the main training ground for future MPs, but now councillors are crowded out by callow special advisers (though Labour is making efforts to remedy this). Being a councillor is a reasonable hobby for an active pensioner, but hopeless for anyone with a career or family commitments. Birmingham cabinet members handle budgets worth many millions; but the Cameron coalition abolished the councillors’ pension scheme and, says Ward, one of their best talents had to walk away.

Once Birmingham was the epitome of Victorian municipal confidence. As mayor, Joseph Chamberlain bought the gas and water utilities, cleared slums and built swimming pools and libraries. His son Neville – yes, that one – added town planning, a symphony orchestra and a municipal bank. The city of Manchester bankrolled the Manchester Ship Canal; Hull famously had its own much-admired telephone system.

After the Second World War came the first dent in local initiative: when the Attlee government nationalised the utilities and the previously patchy health service. But councils got a major role in the inchoate town planning process. By then, though, they were getting a bad name. Planning chairmen were perceived as being on the make, while prudish council watch committees censored books and films, often sight unseen. In 1949 Colne Council in Lancashire refused to allow a chip shop to open seven doors from the town hall.

But into the 1960s, the councils maintained full control of state education. The convention was that Westminster did not interfere, which held until the Labour minister Anthony Crosland resolved in 1965 to remove the local option and pressurise local authorities to turn their grammar schools into comprehensives, an ambition he largely achieved.

After that, both main parties effectively conspired in the belief that size was everything. The changes of the Wilson-Heath years emphasised alleged efficiency over local control. They also wiped away a millennium of history in the counties and nearly a century of quasi-independence for the county boroughs (the larger towns and cities), imposing random new boundaries and names that upset anyone who cared, and confused the majority who did not.

In the Thatcher years, when the centralisation of power achieved its peacetime apogee, local government reached a new nadir. Labour councils declared themselves “nuclear-free zones” while Westminster throttled their ability to do anything useful. Council houses were sold off, the rates were capped, local input into education further constrained, and bus subsidies banned. After Ken Livingstone’s Greater London Council tweaked her nose once too often, Mrs T just waved her wand and abolished it. When she overreached herself by imposing the poll tax, the Major government moved more sensitively and even sentimentally, restoring the local authority status of counties such as Herefordshire and gallant little Rutland.

The 1997 Labour government loosened the purse strings and gave Britain a vestige of devolution. Tony Blair could not escape the commitment but his heart was never in it. Hence his botched attempts to parachute in his own men – Frank Dobson as mayor of London, and Alun Michael into Wales – instead of the obvious charismatic candidates, Livingstone and Rhodri Morgan.

In 2011 the Cameron-led coalition pushed through the Localism Act, which began sonorously: “A local authority has power to do anything that individuals generally may do.” But freedom without funds is meaningless and the communities secretary Eric Pickles, ignoring the tradition that ministers defend their corner in times of cuts, made damn sure that councils bore the brunt of George Osborne’s austerity. Those involved at the time knew it was insanity to ring-fence the NHS budget while neglecting social care, which had been devolved to the now impoverished councils. But it took several more prime ministers, chancellors and many deaths before it was common knowledge.

And still the government wants to make councils both poorer and bigger. This April has brought forth a new unitary North Yorkshire, England’s largest administrative area. From Ingleton in its south-west to Whitby in its north-east, it is 100 miles and three hours’ drive. Towns the size of Harrogate and Scarborough, big enough to be self-governing county boroughs under pre-1974 rules, will now have about as much power as Vowchurch.

“We will have locally based managers who have a strong understanding of the issues in their areas,” Richard Flinton, the chief executive of the new council, told the Harrogate-based news website The Stray Ferret. “You don’t have to go to a parish meeting to understand what’s happening in that parish,” said Carl Les, the leader of a body likely to be Conservative in perpetuity. I find both these statements bone-chillingly dictatorial.

No comparable democracy does this, says Colin Copus, emeritus professor of local politics at De Montfort University. “The argument is that size makes them more efficient, effective and cheaper, but 50 years of research shows that this is simply not true. It’s just that they are easier to control from the centre.” In France, even small towns are given leeway to set their own budgets and priorities, provided that the figures balance and they don’t, say, knock down the cathedral to build a casino. In Belgium, says Professor Copus, municipalities can choose from “hundreds” of different taxes and use the ones that work best for them. He disputes the methodology used in the report that made Britain 28th out of 39 countries; the compilers, he says, failed to grasp that just because taxes were raised locally it didn’t mean councils had the power to allocate those funds as they chose. He believes our true ranking is significantly worse.

[See also: What does the Budget mean for levelling up?]

In Britain, it is still not possible for tourist towns to impose the hotel taxes that are normal in other countries. Across the planet, receptionists slip a little something on the bill that guests hardly notice. Why is this impossible in London, where many of the galleries and museums are free? It would be easy money to bolster our national heritage. But that would require a hypothecated tax (one where the funds are dedicated to a particular purpose), and as the Labour peer Peter Snape told the House of Lords last year: “The Treasury loathes the idea of hypothecation because it would take away the control over local authorities’ budgets that it enjoys so much.”

Birmingham tried to do something similar for the 2022 Commonwealth Games. It was rejected by the government. There is a similar initiative for a £1-a-night levy in Manchester but this is unofficial, locally organised by business, and perhaps unenforceable.

Such matters rarely make the media, local or national. The collapse of the regional press is a factor but, frankly, council coverage was rarely forensic in the old days. Now, the BBC is eviscerating its local radio services. The best-read reports, by far, are the scandalettes reported in the Rotten Boroughs column in Private Eye, run since the last century by Tim Minogue, who could fill most of the magazine if he used all his tip-offs. He has watched the councils enduring the torture of slow pauperisation, Whitehall’s version of “The Pit and the Pendulum”. Not surprisingly, some of them have tried to escape with schemes that have been to varying degrees dodgy, self-serving or incompetently executed.

Minogue identifies three different phases. In his early days the cases mostly involved badly designed outsourcing works and contracts, and live-now, pay-later private finance initiatives. Then they started to sell off buildings and land, but that had a limited lifespan. Then they got into property speculation for themselves, buying up shopping centres just as shopping went online.

“I’m not saying other stuff doesn’t happen, filling mates’ pockets and so on,” says Minogue. “But that was much easier when there was more money around. Now it’s more chiselling expenses and a culture of entitlement. It’s easiest in the one-party states: Labour big cities and the Tory shires.” But, it seems real corruption has moved up the food chain, to Westminster where, once expense fiddles became harder, lobbying took off.

London is partially immune to the travails experienced in the provinces. Herefordshire, a rural county of low pay and not much business, was set free in 1997 after nearly 25 years as a put-upon colony of Worcestershire. In 2019, Tory rule was halted, or interrupted, by a rickety coalition of independent councillors – some very independent indeed – and Greens. With no obvious leader, they turned to a political neophyte, David Hitchiner, who had finished a long career as a lawyer and business administrator. He could read a balance sheet, and was an amiable character without enemies who has kept the show on the road. “He’s ruthless when necessary,” says a colleague.

In 2011 Herefordshire received a grant of £60m to achieve what would now be called levelling up. (It has 2,000 miles of road for 200,000 people; Greater London has 9,000 for nine million). That grant is now £1m. Something like £100m has been cut from its budget in real terms. Many country lanes now resemble rainforest tracks: Hitchiner estimates they need £350m to bring the road network up to standard; the annual sum allocated is £15m. One councillor tells of departments formerly of 20 staff members now left with about three. Hitchiner himself is paid £38,000 a year for a working week he estimates at 60 hours; ordinary councillors get £8,000. “We only have one councillor under 40,” he says.

This year just about every council in England will raise their taxes by 4.99 per cent, except for those given exemptions so that their council tax payers can help them evade bankruptcy – if they imposed 0.01 per cent more they would have to hold, and pay for, a referendum. A Conservative leaflet through my door said they would fix the potholes if they regained control of the county next week. In the name of heaven, how?

All of this is madness. “We are very much the outliers in a Europe-wide comparison,” says Professor Copus. “We have poor community cohesion, low trust in councillors and, by a long way, the lowest turnout in elections.” Dave Richards, professor of public policy at Manchester University, told me that “local government has become a delivery arm of central government. The powers have gone to quangos, semi-public bodies, charities and the private sector.”

Among the handful of political scientists who cover this unglamorous branch of the discipline, some see glimmers of hope. Professor Liz Richardson, a colleague of Richards at Manchester, thinks the new mayoral system can work well: “In theory they have little power, but take Andy Burnham. He has used his soft power to bring people together and agree a solid set of policy goals, especially on street homelessness and during Covid.”

Others see the new mayoralties as half-baked gimmicks, and believe the solution is genuine local empowerment to regenerate public interest and neighbourhood pride. That might stop councils like Sheffield and Plymouth chopping down trees under cover of nightfall, both literal and metaphorical.

Democracy dies in darkness and local government is gasping for breath, with a hobnailed Whitehall boot on its neck. Recently, even George Osborne, the chief architect of this state of affairs, suggested giving “local areas much greater powers to raise or cut taxes, and spend the proceeds”. He is shameless, but he’s right.

[See also: Why communities are vital to tackling the multiple crises we face]

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This article appears in the 26 Apr 2023 issue of the New Statesman, The New Tragic Age