An Unnecessary Role

embracing false choices

Archive for May 2011

I’m not here to make friends

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As someone who takes the label of Blairite as a compliment and would place himself firmly on the moderate, pragmatic, localist wing of the Labour Party, I am not a natural cheerleader for Ken Livingstone. But I, and the overwheming majority of the London Labour Party, voted for him to be our Mayoral candidate. He was and remains the only viable candidate with the ability to win the Mayoralty back for Labour.

Ken, like most of us, has flaws that are many and varied. But he outshines Boris Johnson (and outshone Oona King) in one crucial but what should be obvious respect – he has always known what the job of Mayor is. I don’t mean this as a cheap shot – Boris is an intelligent, (generally) engaged and warm politician, not the blithering dilettante some opponents characterise him as. But I suspect he entered the game thinking that being Mayor of London was quite a different prospect to what it has turned out to be.

The rhetoric often paints the Mayoralty as a vague, almost abstract city leadership position that ‘runs London’, but the vast majority of on-the-ground services are delivered by the borough councils. The Mayor uses the levers at his disposal to make strategic decisions to develop London’s economy, maintain and improve its transport infrastructure, and influence planning, regeneration and housing development. He makes plans and policies relating to the environment, culture and health inequalities.  Oh, and he’s also in charge of the police.

If that sounds complicated, that’s because it is. The election of Mayor is too easily reduced to the search for a ‘name’, a celebrity Mayor capable of bringing a little sparkle to the city through charisma alone. (What else explains the continued presence of Lembit Opik in the 2012 race?) What the specific role of Mayor requires, though, is a gifted city administrator that can use a clear set of political priorities to navigate the complex environment of London governance to make a better future for this city.

That message is a hard sell, especially when coverage of London politics rarely explores the nuances of the system, but with Ken as the candidate we have at least got the fundamentals right. And I didn’t come here to make friends, I came to win.

(Photo by Flickr user Boris Mitendorfer).

Written by samelliot

May 31, 2011 at 7:32 pm

Posted in London

What bins tell us about the future of localism

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I’m not snooty about waste management. When it comes to council services it is probably the most visible to the average punter, and councils screw up bin collections at their electoral peril. A decent rubbish collection service is good for the environment, good for the local area, and good for an area’s quality of life.

That said, as with yesterday’s bizarre council procurement showdown, what is it about bins that means that every council that plans to vary its collection frequency hits the front page? According to this morning’s Telegraph:

The Government is to announce a deal under which councils will be offered financial incentives to collect household rubbish every week.

A similar plan using government grants was successfully introduced to encourage local authorities to freeze council tax this year.

The policy is expected to be announced as the centrepiece of a review of waste policy being conducted by the Department for Environment and Rural Affairs (Defra).

A source close to the review said the funding plans for councils to restore weekly bin collections – estimated to be about £100 million a year – had been agreed and the scheme will be unveiled within the next fortnight.

More than half of councils are thought to have abandoned weekly bin collections over the past few years, depriving more than 18 million people of the service.

I’m not sure whether fortnightly collections are a good idea or not. I’d rather leave that to the professionals. I do suspect that with different recycling, garden and food waste collections becoming increasingly common then speaking of the ‘weekly bin collection’ is becoming less relevant. But if residents value the service and the resources can be found to pay for it, then who am I to say different?

But forget all that for a moment and look at how the ‘deal’ is going to work. A (presumably) small specific grant that is contingent on councils behaving in particular way as mandated by central government. The council tax freeze, whilst undoubtedly popular, worked in exactly the same way, and was an early indication that Pickles-Shapps ‘guided localism’ is a lot less about allowing the development of distinctive local democratic agendas and a lot more about creating local government that behaves in a way dictated by them.

When Conservative council leaders (and a fair few Labour ones) used to bemoan Labour centralism under the previous government, they would talk of the ringfenced funding, the heavy-handed central guidance and the lack of independence for councils. It seems like we’ve still got all that, but without the funding increases that softened the blow. I’m not sure that is going to work in the long term. Who’d want to be part of a system like that?

(Photo by Flickr user Leo Reynolds.)

Written by samelliot

May 30, 2011 at 4:10 pm

Posted in Environment, Localism

Llama Localism

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Sometimes, for those of us who value and believe in the importance of local government – not vague and woolly ‘localism’ but a well resourced, democratically accountable local government – the weekend papers bring little cheer.

Facing that ‘difficult second album’ after exposing the unconventional method Britain had until recently chosen to reward its parliamentarians, the arbiters of fiscal responsibility that populate the Daily Telegraph (including the Wodehousian Conrad Quilty-Harper) have done battle with local authority press officers to bring us the news that ‘Councils spend £100m on taxpayer-funded credit cards’. They’ve even found a ‘senior Government source’ to compare the shenanigans with the MPs-expenses scandal, thus at least giving the paper a bit of internal cross-promotion if nothing else.

Let’s leave aside the misleading opening paragraph that is clearly designed to give the impression that chief executives and council leaders are as we speak yukking it up on first class flights to Singapore at the expense of Joe Taxpayer. And let’s not pretend that local authorities, like many businesses, quangos, and public bodies, couldn’t stand to benefit from a bit more rigour when it comes to deciding how to use corporate credit cards. I, for one, think it’s about time councils got out of the llama-buying business.

When taxpayer’s money is at stake, there is clearly some news value in investigating what is simply one of the mechanisms through which local authorities procure goods and services. But is it complacent to suggest that this should be more the stuff of the trade press feature pages that the front page of a national newspaper? The quoted £100m figure amounts to a fraction of one percent of the annual budget of the country’s local authorities. The fact that some of it is spent on junkets to the far East and XBoxes for the staff room is worthy of scrutiny but in the grand scheme of things I suspect most people will sleep at night.

In which case, the reader might think, why spend a sunny afternoon devoting your first blog post to this? It is because it speaks to a phenomenon that believers in local democracy from all parties should be concerned about – the consistent undermining of the legitimacy of local government by elements of the national media, in open collaboration with Government ministers, creating the perception of a local government infrastructure that is chronically wasteful, riddled with corruption, out of touch and inadequate in meeting the needs of local areas.  And I have to hand to them, it’s working. It’s an easy message to sell, certainly, and nobody ever made themselves unpopular slagging off their local council. The reason it is working, though, is that local government doesn’t have the space to make its own case.

It’s not just that lobbying organisations like the LGA and some guys in Southwark are hit just as hard by the cuts to funding that local authorities are facing. More importantly, it’s that local authorities don’t have the true freedom to do what they are democratically elected to do – to shape their areas according to the wishes of their residents expressed at the ballot box. They don’t have the financial independence to raise their own funds, plan for the long term and promote economic development that their local area can benefit from. And they don’t have a settled constitutional role out of reach of the man at Eland House.

Graham Allen MP wrote last week of his select committee’s ambitious (yet, in other countries, utterly unremarkable) proposals for a codification of a role for local government as an independent entity, rather than the administrative arm of the centralised state. Perhaps this is a way past the ‘Rotten Boroughs’ image of local government, elevating the status of the Town Hall, ensuring the best political and managerial talent want to pursue their careers at a local level, and giving councils the chance to show what they can do free from the financial and reputational restrictions imposed from above.

PS. The llamas are actually lottery-funded llamas, so aren’t even really an example of whatever spurious point the Telegraph were trying to prove anyway.

(Photo by Flickr user mrapplegate.)

Written by samelliot

May 29, 2011 at 3:54 pm

Posted in Finance, Localism