UK: HANDS OFF LOCAL GOVERNMENT. - Tony Allen calls for action to halt the erosion of local government and its seriously weakening effect on our constitutional checks and balances our constitutional checks and balances.

Last Updated: 31 Aug 2010

Tony Allen calls for action to halt the erosion of local government and its seriously weakening effect on our constitutional checks and balances our constitutional checks and balances.

Those who do not immediately associate local government with high quality services and effective management may be forgiven. After all, for nearly two decades central government, ably assisted by the popular press, has characterised local government as profligate and inefficient. It is time for that image to be challenged. It is also worth re-examining whether Parliament's steady transfer over recent years of hitherto local government services to non-accountable quangos is really in the country's best interests.

It is true that local authorities had allowed themselves to become too big and bureaucratic. They unwisely tried to provide all services with their own directly employed staff. Central government was, however, no better, and nor were many of the leviathans of the private sector. Recently many of the larger conglomerates have re-thought their business and organisational strategy. Demergers, downsizing and outsourcing have become the order of the day. Central government has embarked on Next Steps agencies - a tiny toe in the water, albeit a welcome one, towards introducing management rather than administration into the dense jungle of Whitehall bureaucracy.

Five years ago, my own authority, Berkshire County Council, saw the need to replace administration with vigorous management. It started a programme of contracting out those services which it felt others were better equipped to provide. Services worth £50 million per annum have been competitively tendered and let on new specifications, which demand quality standards of service. There were few redundancies as our former staff now work for the new contractors. We have included not just blue-collar services like cleaning, grounds maintenance, vehicle maintenance and catering, but also white-collar ones such as IT, architecture, engineering, planning, and finance.

We have effectively bought better management for our staff and better value and quality for the council tax payer. We have achieved investment in these services by private sector involvement. Our own government-capped budgets and reduced capital programmes would not have allowed this. We have reassessed our future requirements by imaginatively using the opportunity to re-specify instead of just tinkering with services in the old-fashioned 're-organise it' approach. We have been able to ignore the Government's compulsory competitive tendering programme with its concentration on low cost and indifference to quality. Best of all perhaps, we have built up a process of negotiating with our contract partners mutually beneficial arrangements, fully tested against the market, instead of being locked into an inadequately developed contractual framework on a sealed tender, lowest bid basis.

Overall, this 'externalisation' has seen our non-school-based staff numbers halved and total establishment fall from 19,000 to 12,500. We have complied with the EC Acquired Rights Directive and have therefore avoided problems with TUPE. We also have the flexibility to downsize these services in future if so required, without incurring redundancy costs. Ironically, if county councils are abolished in favour of smaller units in the forthcoming local government re-organisation, we will probably be the cheapest authority to abolish.

But is there not more to local government than simply making it efficient? Do we not have to consider whether the erosion of local government is not seriously weakening our constitutional checks and balances? Local government has been developed throughout this century not just to administer national services locally but to take account of local needs and preferences. No one has ever argued that democracy is the most efficient system of decision-making. Its value is that it provides accountability for local services. Councillors are accessible. Their officials are visible and answerable to local politicians. With a local authority, you have a much greater chance of your problem being resolved than trying to find your way through the Whitehall maze. Moreover, we all pay local taxes to fund local services. Why therefore is there no protest when this local accountability is steadily removed? Further Education has recently been handed over to a quango; similarly, schools inspection. The careers service goes next, then some of the police service involvement. Is there any check on the centralising tendencies of a national government if there are no local accountable bodies to represent the alternative view?

Local government has not always been wrong. The community charge fiasco was a classic case of central government ignoring local government advice. Local government expressed major reservations about the present unified business rate system. It might have appeared attractive to businesses in those few areas where local taxation seemed unreasonably high but the result has been an enormous loss from some areas of business's contribution to local taxation to the point where the connection between local government and business is almost non-existent.

Arguably, what central government is doing with statute after statute giving ministers power to govern by regulation is to build up even more central control. As local government begins to see a managerial renaissance, is this the right time to let it wither and die? The 1993 local election results, with their rejection of Conservative candidates, has perhaps shown a use for it still. I will end with a challenge. What about business setting an example and taking an active interest in local government re-organisation? Some of us believe the process so far suggests nothing more than chaos and confusion. Does anyone care?

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