An Unnecessary Role

embracing false choices

Llama Localism

with one comment

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

One Response

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  1. […] 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 […]

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