Tuesday, 9 October 2012

Government by conference soundbite - and why it affects Cornwall - UPDATED

Localism is a good thing. It means handing power down from government to local councils and from local councils to parish and town councils, community groups and even individuals. It's more than the old John Major-era concept of subsidiarity - which was all about decision making. It's about delivering services as well.

And the coalition government has done a lot to make localism happen.
  • Local groups can now challenge to run services themselves if they believe they can do it better or cheaper.
  • Communities can 'list' assets of community value to stop them being sold from under their noses.
  • Town and parish councils can lead the way in deciding what sort of development they want and where it should be - and this plan will have the weight of law on its side.
But there is still room for improvement. The right to bid to run local services will remain a pretty hollow one if councils (like Cornwall) refuse to recognise any community benefit in local service delivery and insist on judging a bid on a purely commercial basis. And the neighbourhood plans idea is great, but needs investment and resources from the council to make it happen.

But whilst these are a good step in the right direction, many Conservative ministers still think that central command and control is the right way forward.

Latest with the 'nanny knows best' outlook is Chancellor George Osborne. Yesterday he announced that he wanted to see councils freeze council tax for a third year and that, for those that did, he would give them a one off grant equivalent to 1% of their budget. Last year, councils who froze tax levels got a 2.5% grant. And, more than that, he would effectively cap councils at a 2% rise in council tax. If an authority wants to raise tax more than that then they will need to hold a very costly referendum and seek voter approval.

That is about as far from localism as it is possible to get. Local councillors who know their local budgets backwards are being usurped from their role by a Chancellor looking to get a cheap clap from his party conference. Even those councillors who want to see council tax bills frozen or cut have been speaking out against this authoritarianism. The (Conservative) head of the Local Government Association said this:
“Reducing the current referendum trigger from 3.5 per cent to 2 per cent represents less flexibility for councils and even less localism with Whitehall decreeing what constitutes excessive. If local referendums are to be truly localist, they should be triggered by local people who can determine whether a council tax increase is excessive or not.
Let's have localism that is (to use Nick Clegg's awful phrase) hard-wired into our society so that it is automatically down to local communities to decide things. It's entirely wrong that these issues should remain at the whim of a minister.

UPDATE - An excellent open letter to Eric Pickles on the issues of planning and the loss of localism is here.

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