Jeremy Beecham on why Tory council leaders have woken up too late to their government repeating the mistakes of recent history
Conservative Party Chairman Grant Shapps, aka Michael Green, let the localism mask slip in a recent Radio 4 interview, describing councillors as “volunteers” akin to “scout leaders”. If that were true of Tory council leaders, their knowledge of the Scouts’ motto would surely have made them prepared for the onslaught on local government unleashed by David Cameron and George Osborne, aided and abetted with enthusiasm by Eric Pickles.
It’s taken two and a half years. But at last the realisation is beginning to dawn on the Tory Leaders of Buckinghamshire, Derbyshire, Essex, Kent, Lincolnshire, Leicestershire, East and West Sussex and Wiltshire that their Party’s senior figures in the Coalition regard local councils at best with indifference and at worst with contempt.
From the first spending review, in which Pickles was first across Osborne’s door to offer up local government as the biggest recipient of cuts, to the recent finance settlement with its further plundering, albeit partially (and silently) deferred until May’s county elections are out of the way, the pattern has been consistent. The cuts of course, have been deliberately skewed to hit areas with the greatest needs most, with coastal towns and inner London boroughs alongside great swathes of the North being especially hard hit – the very same areas where welfare cuts are about to wreak the most damage.
It’s not just about money.
Local authorities are being driven out of education; their role assumed by the Secretary of State and unaccountable academy trusts and sponsors. They have also been threatened with the takeover of adoption, and are now marginalised in policing. And under proposals in the Growth and Infrastructure Bill could be bypassed by developers, themselves able to head straight to the Communities Secretary and their nominated appointees to request planning permissions.
Councils are being excluded from a wide range of decisions affecting matters deemed of national importance, defined in very broad terms. They have been lectured on weekly bin-collections, spending reserves, chief executive posts, allowances and pensions; patronised with suggestions for savings; and denied the means to tackle problems like the provision of affordable housing or capitalising the rising cost of redundancies.
So now, even shire county Tory leaders are rebelling. It’s not exactly the Peasant’s Revolt, but as the Telegraph reported last week, more than thirty leading local government Conservatives have written to the Prime Minster – their Party leader – denouncing “ill-informed and anecdote-based general criticism and sometimes highly inaccurate personal attacks”.
By sheer chance I recently came across a speech I made as Chairman of the Association of Metropolitan Authorities twenty years ago, which referred to “an unprecedented concentration of power and patronage in the hands of Ministers” and declared that “the uneasy balance between the centre and localities has been shifted dramatically in favour of Whitehall”. I went on to criticise the “escalating programme of financial controls and the operation of a grotesquely unfair system for distributing government grant”.
History is repeating itself with a vengeance. Tory council leaders are learning, too late, that the point of history is to learn from it not make the same mistakes all over again. For all the pretensions of the Localism Act, the government is promoting not localism and local democracy but a version of democratic centralism, with the emphasis very much on the centralism.
Lord Jeremy Beecham is a Shadow Local Government Minister in the House of Lords
Published 27th January 2013