When the United Kingdom became a signatory of the European Charter of Local Self-Government in 1997, it committed to safeguarding the “political, administrative and financial independence of local authorities”.
The charter has never been introduced into domestic law as the UK does not have a written constitution. This has not, however, prevented the Council of Europe’s Congress of Local and Regional Authorities – which is responsible for monitoring the application of the charter – from criticising the centralised nature of Britain. Last March the congress came to the conclusion that local government in the UK is at the “discretion” of the national government, and said that without protections in place for councils the country is “in breach of the Charter”.
The Commission on the UK’s Future, chaired by the former prime minister, Gordon Brown, has drawn similar conclusions and recommended that the autonomy of local authorities be put on a statutory footing and “respected by central government”.
The absence of a clear legislative framework is problematic. There are few checks and balances on ability of elected politicians in Westminster to override decisions made by elected politicians outside of Westminster.
In February, the Department for Transport announced £200m to improve walking and cycling routes, but the Transport Secretary criticised low-traffic neighbourhoods (LTNs) as “anti-driver” schemes. It was decided they did not qualify for funding. In June, the local government minister wrote to South Cambridgeshire District Council to “request formally” that it end its four-day week trial “immediately”. The government concluded that a four-day week was not consistent with the “Best Value Duty” enshrined in the Local Government Act – in short, it wasn’t an appropriate use of taxpayer’s money.
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Yesterday (30 July) it was reported that the government will review the roll-out of LTNs and restrict local authorities from imposing 20 miles-per-hour speed limits. These are not new interventions: on London alone, LTNs were introduced in Waltham Forest a decade ago and lower speed limits were introduced in Hammersmith and Fulham long before that.
Labour has not been immune either. Following the Conservative’s victory in the Uxbridge and South Ruislip by-election, the Mayor of London has reportedly been in “listening mode” after senior party figures expressed concern over the electoral fallout from his proposals to extend the Ultra Low Emissions Zone to the outskirts of the city.
A clear picture has emerged from the evidence of these interventions: LTNs improve air quality, reduce traffic volumes and increase active travel (such as walking and cycling). Slower speed limits reduce mortality, according to a review conducted on behalf of the Welsh government. And independent analysis by the University of Cambridge’s Bennett Institute for Public Policy concluded that the ongoing four-day week trail “positively impacts individual well-being, increases workplace productivity, and maintains – in some services even improves – council performance”.
Whether you agree with these policies or not, underpinning them is an important principle that must be protected. Communities should have the right to exercise agency and ownership over issues that affect their daily lives. And that right should include taking decisions even if they are unpopular in Whitehall or Westminster.
The government already has in place a chewing gum task force, which is a centrally controlled fund for preventing and mitigating chewing gum litter. Local authorities cannot build cattle grids without the Department for Transport’s approval. Four authorities who applied to the Department for Transport to erect signs on their road network to notify motorists of hedgehogs were denied permission when they did not provide sufficient evidence. Meanwhile, the government has set up: a Levelling Up Parks Fund to support authorities investing in, for example, bulb planting, bat boxes and benches; a Changing Places Fund to invest in specialised public toilets; and a Local Authority Treescapes Fund to invest in tree-planting. Under a more logical, diffuse model of governance, none of these types of project would require involvement from the centre.
A legislative solution is required to provide greater certainty for both central and local government, protect local authorities from the whims of Westminster politics, and enable communities to take more decisions over their lives, but that is unlikely to be realised in this parliament. In the meantime, one thing is clear: the status quo isn’t working.