An Unnecessary Role

embracing false choices

Archive for the ‘Localism’ Category

Now to make all this sensible stuff stick

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Did you hear? There’s no money left. Apparently debt and deficit are terrible things that eventually need to be sorted out. And you can be darn sure that when the Labour Party get back into power that’s bally well what we’re going to. Well, here’s a slow hand clap for you, stalwarts of the radical progressive centre. Bravo. I suppose it only took eighteen months or so, but we got there in the end.

Now to make all this sensible stuff stick. First, I would recommend that you don’t answer every question about the economy like you were forced at gunpoint to talk about cutting the deficit by Anthony Painter, and that you don’t say that you’re doing it “to make the party credible” but instead that you are doing it because it is the right thing to do.

Then with that irritating reflex action out of the way, we can get on with the real stuff. The esteemed former blogging home of Luke Bozier, Labourlist, has recently been running a series called “When there’s no money left?”, an Opportunity Knocks for the various policy hobby horses of the kooks, waifs and strays that make up The People’s Movement. The winner is stunning, a real gem. It manages to combine the best qualities of the Labour Party – authoritarianism, intrusion and inverted snobbery – into one single policy:

I propose that all income tax returns of anyone living in the UK should be in the public domain. These should also include a nil return for those not paying any income tax at all.

There is surely nothing more likely to persuade the working class voters of Harlow to stick their cross next to the red rose logo than the prospect of all their neighbours knowing exactly how much they earn. Even so, I fear that if we think of policies like this as the only alternative to spending lots of cash on stuff, we are making an error. The alternative to not spending any money does not have to be isolated gimmicks. It could be far more ambitious than that. When you can’t redistribute money then maybe you could redistribute power.

By and large, people’s attitude to the cuts goes something like this: “I accept the need to spend less money, but I am sad to see local services I value being affected”. People feel they don’t have the power to affect those changes, to influence the choices being made about their local hospitals, schools, libraries, leisure services, even the bins.

So why not make a real commitment to local democracy the alternative? Put more power in the hands of councillors, leader and mayors who are doing this “In the Black” stuff every day of their working lives, give voters genuine democratic influence over their local services (perhaps through directly elected mayors) and lead a debate about making a heavily centralised bureaucratic state more local, more democratic, and yes, cheaper.

Written by samelliot

January 20, 2012 at 6:25 pm

The great local government stress test

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The Government’s deficit reduction strategy is like building a bridge. That’s what someone with far more knowledge that I about local government finance told me. And when you’re building a bridge you need to test the constituent parts so you know how weight they can bear. And to do that, you put them under immense pressure until they bend and break.

As far as local government goes, this isn’t only being done by the reductions in basic grant outlined in the comprehensive spending review, it’s also being done by making structural changes to the scale of funding local councils have to draw on. Today the LGA has indicated that local government funding is likely to be to adjusted take account of the public sector pay cap of 1%. Never mind that local government sets its own pay rates and hasn’t increased pay at all for two years. Government pay policy now dictates local government funding, and restraining pay restrains overall funding.

The proposals that came out of the local government resource review (with the full outcome due to be published any day now) sought to establish the principle that local government will be funded directly by business rates, and that councils can benefit from stimulating business growth in their areas. But also built into the system is the ability of Government to ensure that overall spending by local councils remains within a centrally-set limit by retaining a proportion of the overall business rates pot.

This is important because the scope for councils to raise their own funds is already drastically limited. Council tax rises are subject to a de facto cap of 3.5% (above which a council must hold a costly referendum to ratify the proposal). Even the Government’s council tax freeze ultimately does more harm than good to local authority budgets, providing some short term funding but reducing the tax base for years to come.

Now, local democracy isn’t only about the total amount of money it spends, and very many good councils will continue to thrive even with radically reduced resources. But the thing that is increasingly concerning those in local government is how long before this stress test leaves some councils in impossible budgetary positions, what happens when it does and if we can prevent that happening.

There has always been a conflict between the way local government claims (rightly) to be both the most efficient part of the public sector whilst at the same time in need of more money. This is not an easy argument to make. Local leaders pride themselves on their ability to cope, to manage budgets effectively whilst making a difference to their communities. But it’s essential to make the argument for more resources (or more realistically, more freedom to generate more resources) if local government is to be about more than providing the bare minimum of services and protection for the vulnerable.

And the politics? If the consequence of the Government’s policies is going to be a process of creative destruction, permanently reshaping what councils are fiscally capable of by permanently changing how they are funded, then that is not going to be reversed by simply reinstating investment, even if that were possible. The Labour Party’s challenge will be to explain what its plans are for public services that will have changed beyond all recognition.

Written by samelliot

December 12, 2011 at 2:04 pm

Posted in Finance, Localism

Clever people saying clever things

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Chris Dillow:

So much for “big think” principles. But there might be a different way of coming at this, by using the Dave Brailsford principle of the aggregation of marginal gains. Maybe policies to improve the “art of living” don’t consist merely of top-down grand ideas, but also of many small things. Richard Layard has proposed putting a higher priority upon mental health on the grounds that lifting the minority of people with acute depression out of their misery makes a good difference to aggregate well-being. I’d add that more should be done to encourage the growth of allotments, on the grounds that this would give people the chance of getting the “flow” happiness that comes from self-directed productive work.

Hopefully, more imaginative folk than I can think of other apparently tiny things that, together, add up to something big. And maybe these initiatives don’t require central government at all, but can be undertaken by local authorities, voluntary groups or just groups of individuals. In which case we should wonder what use national politicians are.

Anthony Painter:

Labour is divided between romantics and pragmatists. It’s not about new versus old Labour. It’s not about trade unions versus the party or socialists versus social democrats. There are romantics, who emphasise the ideal, the human, the ethical, the relational and the communitarian. Pragmatists emphasise power, policy, practicality and process.

Written by samelliot

November 21, 2011 at 10:07 am

Posted in Labour, Localism

It’s taken for granted that Labour will win local elections – so let’s make the most of it

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Some time in October 2012, Sion Simon or Gisela Stuart or someone else who holds the title of elected Mayor of Birmingham is going to walk into Local Government House to meet their peers as probably the most powerful elected Labour politician in Britain. The Government, through their plans for city mayors, is creating a new cadre of high status local leaders. And the way the Labour Party deals with those new leaders will say a lot about how it sees the possibilities and limits of local democracy.

So here’s a suggestion for Ed and his team – make this against-the-grain boosting of local leadership a central part of your political strategy for the next three years. First, build a cohort of outstanding local leaders. In the first instance this is about identifying and cultivating the hugely talented people who are already committed to local politics, but it also means persuading the best talent the Labour Party has elsewhere to stand as Mayoral candidates, wooing them with the elevated powers and status that being a Mayor brings.

Then you need to show that it is going to take the fight to the Tories and Lib Dems at local level like never before, and that this time it is not simply about piling up the numbers of council seats and basking in the reflected glory. It is about saying that when ten elected Labour Mayors and fifty Labour council leaders are returned to office, they will not only be your campaigning leads across the country, they will not only be your eyes and ears on the ground, but that you will regard them as as legitimate a representative of their community as their MPs, if not more so.

Localists like me want to see all this happen in the Labour Party because we believe in redistributing power, localising decision making and bringing as many public services as possible as close to the community as possible. But don’t worry too much about that right now, that’s a happy by-product that will come later. The thing you’re most interested in is the politics.

So, with another couple of local election rounds down, how about this for a political message? Labour running every major city in this country. Countless communities already being served by the credible and connected leadership a Labour council brings with it. Mr Cameron representing no-one but his fossilised, riven, out of touch, Europe obsessed party and their sandal-wearing helpmeets. And a Labour Party going into an election knowing that they’ve already won most of it, ready to finish the job.

The Conservative Party are seeking to shift the balance of political power in this country and they think it will benefit them electorally. Time to prove them wrong.

Written by samelliot

November 20, 2011 at 6:10 pm

Posted in Democracy, Labour, Localism

“Community leaders are elected. Anybody else who says they’re a community leader, fine, go and get elected.”

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Anyone who is interested in the future of Labour in local government, or indeed the future direction of the Labour Party full stop, should watch this video of Sir Robin Wales, Mayor of Newham, talking to Anna Turley from Progloc.

Written by samelliot

September 6, 2011 at 2:45 pm

Posted in Labour, Localism, London

Start the political term with some low cost flooring solutions

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It’s back – the perpetual, ulcer-inducing treadmill that is the body politic, the swirling, chaoatic miasma leaving even its most bit part of players (i.e. me) with a gnawing sense that something, somewhere is going horribly wrong. Did you have a nice holiday? Nobody cares.

How do I know it’s back? Why, there was a speech by Michael Gove of course. It was a very long speech, about all the kinds of trad cultural conservatism touchstones that I assume now pass for ideology in post-Dave Toryism – school uniforms, extra Greek prep, perhaps the odd ‘never did me any harm’ beating. Ordinarily it’s the kind of thing I wouldn’t read if I was stuck in a lift, but noted local government comedian Cllr Pete Robbins drew my attention to a line where Gove is praising Lord Harris of Peckham, interiors tycoon and part-time educational messiah.

Phil is able to support state education so generously because of his success in business.

His firm Carpetright has brought jobs and opportunities, as well as high quality low cost flooring solutions, to thousands.

Now, as a fully paid up member of the Blair/Adonis axis (excellent article from Adonis on big city mayors here, btw) I am what many comrades would view as dangerously suspect when it comes to academies and even free schools. But my reptilian pinko brain stem is not so denuded that a Secretary of State plugging World of Leather wouldn’t register on my “something dodgy about this” scale. When politics makes you think the world is going mad, then you know that it’s business as usual.

What’s on the agenda then? If you’re in local government, it’s still the Local Government Resource Review, as councillors, officers, wonks and journalists try and work out how a system as complicated as formula grant but with the word GROWTH sprinkled liberally through the press material gives local authorities anything other than a giant headache. It’s council tax benefit localisation, the pigs foot in the localist stocking, with councils being given the new, radical opportunity to take local responsibility for cutting poor people’s benefits. It’s school capital funding (not enough of it), school places (not enough of them either), public transport fares (too high), police numbers (too low), and, oh yes, it’s Annual Conference soon. In Liverpool.

It’s good to be back.

Written by samelliot

September 5, 2011 at 9:41 pm

Posted in Cynicism, Finance, Localism

While you were looting

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This sort of thing is not supposed to happen in August. It has been difficult to blog this week as when not seeing the heart ripped out of the two cities I call home I have either been working or despairing at the body politic’s frantic rushes to judgement (when they weren’t being shamed into coming back home like the saps they are). As Hopi says:

That about sums it up. Political parties, think tanks, charities, local authorities, government and others will spend weeks and months and years analysing and understanding the event of the last week. For London local government it is that dreadfully phrased thing, a “game-changer”. The game is changed. Everything local government does in London will take place against the backdrop of this August’s violence, ever mindful of the criminality (let me use the word just once, I haven’t had chance yet), social dysfunction and resentment that appears to lie below the surface of society, seemingly unchanged by the years of youth work, housing improvement and community engagement. And what that means for London’s communities we can, for now, only speculate.

Almost as interesting for a geek like me (although probably without the longer term repercussions) is the #riotcleanup initiative, spontaneous community action organised by social media to put right what the feral riff-raff made wrong. Now, I didn’t think these clean-ups were “the closest thing to popular fascism that we have seen on the streets of certain ‘leafy’ bits of London for years”, but I will admit that the darker parts of my soul did feel like informing these evangelical do-gooders that most councils maintain a large street cleaning fleet who would be able to do the job to a high level of competence well in advance of their leisurely 11.00am start time.

This, of course, would have been nothing but churlish spite, targeted at people who in my eyes had committed a crime even greater that violent disorder and theft – the crime of not understanding local government infrastructure. It was with some relief then that I was turned back to the light by reading this post by We Love Local Government, which saw the community stepping up and working with local councils as the undoubted good thing it is for both local government and local communities.

And here is the rub; the cleanup operation proved the success of both local government (and government in general) and society in general. The elected local governments were able to adjust the services they provide, on behalf of the people, to ensure that the worst of the damage was put right. Without this base level of competence, personal commitment from the staff involved and the logistical skills of the councils involved the clean up probably wouldn’t have been completed as soon as it was. Likewise, the support of society was able to send the sort of powerful message that local government alone couldn’t manage.

Read that, and then read nothing else. Take a deep breath. We all need it.

Written by samelliot

August 13, 2011 at 10:00 am