Futures Forum: The assault on Local Government: The Strange Death of Municipal England:
And the various events and experiments of late don't seem to be helping:
Futures Forum: An uncertain future for local government finance
Futures Forum: Brexit: and local democracy ... of devolution and cuts in local government
The East Devon Watch blog points to the latest from the Democratic Audit group
- and asks a question:
“What does democracy require of England’s local governments?” | East Devon Watch
Here are a few extracts from that report:
The May 2017 local elections across England and Scotland took place in the early part of the ‘snap’ General Election campaign triggered by Theresa May, at a point when the Conservatives still enjoyed a massive opinion poll lead over Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour, and with the Liberal Democrats trailing at just 8 per cent national support. The party vote shares at local level across Great Britain turned out rather differently. The Conservatives gained many seats on 38% support; Labour was on a historic low of 27%; and the Liberal Democrats defending their local ‘community’ bases secured 18%, more than double their eventual general election vote share a month later.
The same elections also saw the May government delivering on previous coalition and Cameron government promises of more localism by creating elected executive mayors to operate on a sub-regional level. These would end the decade-long stasis on devolution within England and the new mayors would take on functions previously run from Whitehall or quasi-government agencies. The first regional mayor elections were successfully held in six areas: turnouts were low, although this might be expected for brand new roles unfamiliar to voters. These developments revived the somewhat flagging momentum towards more use of elected mayors (see below).Audit 2017: How democratic is local government in England? : Democratic Audit UK
Strengths, weakness, opportunities and threats
Local cabinets and scrutiny committees
Local cabinets and scrutiny committees
The historic patterns of running local councils in England have also changed in the last decade. Once all councillors were collectively engaged in decision-making through committees and no single councillor legally held decision-making powers. The reality of such a system, however, was that only the majority group of councillors would see their preferred decisions made in committee. Committee chairs would also often meet together privately, or with officers and act as a form of ‘submerged’ or nascent cabinet.
After the Local Government Act 2000, all councils were obliged to distinguish between councillors holding executive positions within a cabinet headed by an executive leader, and the remainder of the council membership. Executive councillors would hold portfolios and if the council decided, could have individual delegated authority. Councillors outside the cabinet would no longer have day-to-day decision-making powers, but would sit on overview and scrutiny committees, charged with holding the executive to account, reviewing policy and decisions, or indeed, holding to account and reviewing the actions of organisations beyond the council. However, overview and scrutiny committees cannot make decisions, only produce reports and recommendations for others to consider. This system made a clear break with the previous approach.
The Localism Act 2011
A section of the Localism Act 2011 provides that ‘a local authority has power to do anything that individuals generally may do’ unless they are specifically prohibited in legislation. However, this relatively new ‘general competence’ power does not free local government from oversight by Whitehall departments, who have been less than enthusiastic in embracing the idea of new freedoms for local government. Indeed, the power does not fundamentally undermine the structure of public law and how councils are restricted in their ability to act. This highlights a conflict between the legalistic view of local government and the political / governing view of local government. Yet, if English local government is to have any chance of genuinely focusing local views, and having governing autonomy to act as it thinks fit to solve the issues it faces, then the general power of competence is a step in the right direction.
Local government finances
The impact of UK government austerity policies has hit home hardest in English local councils. They calculated in July 2017 that central revenue support grants of £9.9bn would be reduced to just £2.2bn by 2019-20 on Whitehall’s projections: ‘Local government as a whole in England would have £15.7bn less central government funding by 2020 than it did in 2010’. Around half of all local councils get no grant support at all. Yet local authorities’ ability to raise council tax is also restricted by Westminster ministers, and monies raised from business rates cannot be retained locally but are passed to the Treasury. In response, cutting ‘discretionary’ spending has been the main thing that councils have had to do – especially repairing potholes in roads infrequently; cutting back library, museum and leisure services; collecting rubbish less often; firing staff; selling off land and depleting financial reserves. Statutory duties, such as providing social care for old people and long term ill and disabled people, and ensuring the safety of children, have been pruned too, but with somewhat more ameliorative central funding arriving late on, chiefly to forestall care scandals. This all adds up to a picture of a dependent tier of government scrambling around to maintain services under acute pressure.
In 2013 the Political and Constitutional Reform Committee, then chaired by Graham Allen MP (but since scrapped) published a report on the prospects of codifying the relationships between central and local government. It included a Manifesto (pp.1-9) by this author, outlining how genuine local autonomy could be introduced. It proposed radically new local law-making powers for councils, constitutional protection against being scrapped or reorganised, substantial tax-raising powers and financial independence from central government. The manifesto also envisaged an English Parliament with much the same powers as the Scottish Parliament (except for the local autonomy provisions above), including safeguards for local citizens to control local voting methods and changes in how councils are run by local referenda. Implementing such a manifesto, or even part of it, would considerably enhance the democratic strength of local government and recognise it as a permanent partner with Whitehall in the overall government of England.
This post does not represent the views of the LSE.
Colin Copus is Professor of Local Politics and Director of the Local Governance Research Unit in the Department of Politics and Public Policy, De Montfort University.
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