The Very Existence of Local Government Hangs in the Balance

This blog is loosely based on comments I made to the Local Government Association’s Independent Group Annual Conference on 22nd October 2012.

As Leader of the first and only Green-led council I am perhaps more free to speak to other council leaders than some other leaders. Time and again I find common ground with them in lamenting Whitehall’s controlling approach to local government. None welcome resources being stripped away in haphazard and sudden ways which make long term planning incredibly difficult.

For example, government announcements over the past few weeks have dragged Brighton & Hove’s expected budget gap for 2013/14 down by approximately another £10 million. Yet we can’t be exactly sure until late December, when we hope for exact figures from government departments.

What’s striking is that while councillors and the Local Government Association can find so much common ground, this is rarely reflected in the actions of those in Westminster and Whitehall. I believe that never before has the gulf between local and central government thinking grown so wide. Something is seriously wrong when councillors, who make up the key activist ranks of all political parties, are being so often ignored by their national political leaderships.

The sorry consensus between Osborne and Balls, Milliband and Cameron is that cuts to local government will continue into the next Parliament. This is despite councils already having been cut far more than other parts of government, 28% cut from councils whilst just 8% from Whitehall by some estimates. Furthermore the LGA’s “graph of doom” clearly shows that council resources for doing anything beyond social care will be gone in a matter of years.

We are in a fight for the future of local government, the very existence of local councils hangs in the balance. No major party has explicitly stated that they are seeking to end the concept of independent local government, but that is where we are headed if we do not act now.

Let’s be clear, I’m not making a party political point here. No major party in Parliament is beyond reproach – whether Labour refusing to back LGA amendments on council tax in the Lords or the Coalition imposing new planning rules on extensions. We need to break the Westminster consensus which talks a good game about ‘place’ and ‘localism’ but steadily delivers less resources and independence to councillors.

Everyone who believes it is right that we have local democracies and local authorities delivering services to a defined place needs to speak out. Great places such as the world class cities where people flock to live, work and visit are the result of local government action and strong local leadership. We are doing our country a great disservice by undermining the local political sphere. Indeed, MPs should take heed, for it is on the back of councillors they win elections.

Unless we collectively and powerfully act now to shift thinking we will see councils irreversibly wither away over the next few years, and we would all be the poorer for that.

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