Local Democracy – Let’s Give It A Try!

Sid Cumberland

Sid Cumberland

This is the time of year when councils all over the country are digesting the good – or bad – news about their local government settlement. How much will central government be giving us this year, to fund the ever-increasing number of services they ask us to provide for local people?

I have been fascinated this year by the contortions the Conservatives are going through. They have been so intent on destroying local democracy over the last eighteen years that they find themselves hopelessly confused when Labour continue the same policy. The ruling Tory group at County will be putting up Council Tax – but Southend Tories’ best stab at a budget proposal was a pathetic suggestion of 10% cuts across the board. Quite how Southend residents would have coped with such massive cuts in their schools, libraries, old people’s homes and all the other services the new authority will be providing, heaven only knows.

But the last few years have shown that the Tories are not as smart economically as they were once thought to be. Our embarrassing exit from the ERM is generally reckoned to have been the turning point in the last government’s fortunes. And it turns out that Labour are not so economically sound either. Ever since the Liberal Democrats took control at Rochford, both Tory and Labour groups have urged us to spend our reserves on essential services. This course would eventually leave us with nothing in the bank, and no way to fund the everyday services we all take for granted.

Many of us hoped things would be different this year – after all, we do now have a new government. But we have been disappointed.

The Labour Government had promised in their manifesto “an end to crude and universal capping”. But came as no surprise (to me, at least) to find that one of the first things they did in government was to confirm the capping of Somerset and Oxfordshire, originally imposed by the outgoing Tory government. And Rochford District Council, which is consistently commended by the auditors for financial prudence, has this year suffered a £1/4 million cut, and – despite the fact that inflation is running at over 3% – a cap at less than 0.6%. If we exceed that, we will be deemed to be ‘absolutely excessive’!

Perhaps the biggest problem with central government control over local spending is that it is all done with smoke and mirrors. For example, when John Prescott says that central government is ‘giving’ more money to Essex schools, what he really means is that Essex is to be ‘allowed’ to spend more. The Treasury won’t be contributing a penny. And it turns out that every £1 extra spent on education will have to be found from some other area of expenditure, like roads maintenance, or libraries, or old people’s homes.

As we approach the end of the first year of Labour government, many people must be asking: “When are things going to change?” It’s an interesting question – how will we know that we have a new government? So far, we’ve had increased taxes, less money for schools, attacks on single parents, the end of free universal education, cuts in NHS spending, falling police numbers, refusal to recognise unions … how will we know when the new government has made a decision of its own, instead of hiding behind the Labour Ministers’ mantra: “We’re committed to Tory spending plans”?

The Liberal Democrats are still the only party which remains committed to adequate funding for public services – health, education, the police.

Our long-term aim is to see power returned to local people. Too many decisions are made in London, by officials who have little knowledge of the communities their choices will affect. We believe that decisions should be made as close to those affected as possible.

Paddy Ashdown has recently called for a change in the way taxes are collected, to put tax raising for local services in the hands of local councils, while allowing councils to make decisions on what services to provide, in consultation with local taxpayers. There is really no reason why taxation which does not have national or international relevance should not be decentralised to regional and local authorities, so that local people can have a direct say in deciding their priorities for local services, without interference from London.

Unfortunately, local consultation and devolution of responsibility are not policies which come naturally to either Labour or the Tories. They both think they know best, and they are both happy to impose their will on local people.

Liberal Democrats have always preferred to trust local communities to make the best judgements about local issues. Local democracy? Go on, let’s give it a try!