Most national Governments – whatever their political complexion – over the last 35 years have been centralist rather than localist. In May 1975, Anthony Crosland famously declared in a speech at Manchester Town Hall that the party was over for local government. The restrictions were intensified when the Conservatives under Margaret Thatcher took over in 1979 and Tony Blair (allegedly scarred by his experience of being rejected by Hackney Labour Party as a prospective council candidate and then by his first-hand experience as a local MP of the delights of Durham County Council) was noticeably suspicious of Labour councils from 1997 onwards. It is only in the last few years that this trend has begun to be reversed – albeit only at the edges.
For example, the Sustainable Communities Act of 2007 enables local authorities to ask central government for additional powers to better achieve the well-being of their local communities and this can include having transferred to them the powers of other public bodies. This is not legislation that one would have expected first-term Blair or any-term Thatcher to have promoted, but it does begin to recognise that local government does have a pivotal role in the delivery of local provision. If local democracy is to mean something, it has to be about local people electing local councillors to determine the level of local services and local taxation.
Since the high-tide of Margaret Thatcher’s attack on local government, the Conservatives have been on a long journey regarding localism. In recent years, their enthusiasm for devolution has no doubt been encouraged by the increasing number of Conservative councillors around the country (they were virtually an endangered species by the mid-1990s).
Essex County Council, which is of course Conservative-led (by no less a person than Lord Hanningfield currently dealing with his own “little local difficulties“), has come up with a series of bids to the Department of Communities and Local Government to use the provisions of the new Act. (I am sure plenty of other local authorities have done the same, but I have not seen their bids reported.)
Essex have proposals on exempting the County from landfill tax, on adjusting local welfare benefits (to tailor benefit rates to reflect the local labour market and to support relevant local training schemes), on rejigging youth provision(with a view to encouraging volunteering) and on the County Council taking over the non-emergency patient transport.
They are also asking for powers (as the Council puts it) to:
” develop and agree a set of minimum standards for government agencies, non-departmental public bodies and other specified local partners. These would reflect the quality of service required in Essex and should be developed for the: Homes and Communities Agency; Environment Agency; Highways Agency; East of England Development Agency; Arts Council England East; Sport England East; Natural England; English Heritage; Business Link East; East of England Tourism and East of England International. …. propose that Essex County Council – as an elected community leader – be given the power to ensure that local standards are met. This might mean requiring specific action of an organisation, replacing local staff, devolving responsibility to local providers or bringing services under the control of the council itself (together with supporting resources).”
They have also asked for the power to run local referendums on key local issues.
Now I don’t agree with all of these, but what I find exciting is that the Sustainable Communities Act is doing what it set out to do: stimulating local councils to think innovatively about how they can best increase local well-being and ensure that local people get the sort of services they want.
Another achievement of this Labour Government.