UK: POLITICAL MANAGERS - TWO TIERS THAT ADD UP TO A FUTURE. - Reform of local government is urgently needed. The appointment of properly paid chief executives would be a good start in building a better tomorrow.

Last Updated: 31 Aug 2010

Reform of local government is urgently needed. The appointment of properly paid chief executives would be a good start in building a better tomorrow.


The problem with local government is that it's neither local nor government. Thousands of new councillors will now be coming to terms with the realities of power. By legislation, circular or through an appeal system, Whitehall has ensured that only at the margin can decisions of consequence be taken. It is little wonder the public don't vote and, after a vote, have little idea who represents them. We shall see what happens now that Scotland has a parliament and Wales an assembly.

In one respect these two countries moved ahead of the game. When I had a role in establishing a Boundary Commission under Sir John Banham, the first head of the Audit Commission, the object was to examine the consequences of the 1972 local government reorganisation that, in effect, removed over a thousand small authorities and a few significant ones but left in place a two-tier system.

I have long believed that for local government to have a more substantial role, counties must absorb district components to put them on a footing with metropolitan equivalents - the boroughs. We made some progress re-establishing county boroughs in larger free-standing towns but the Banham Commission hit the usual flak in trying to reorganise local government and made only partial progress.

My colleagues in Scotland and Wales, Ian Lang and John Redwood, wisely chose to forgo the time-consuming process of local inquiry. They drew a map of unitary authorities and legislated to introduce them. The hostility was ritual and short-lived. No one today seriously questions the wisdom of what they did. Scotland and Wales now have, in effect, a two-tier system of local government - a regional parliament or assembly and a tier of unitary authorities.

England is in a mess, with too many authorities with too little power, presiding over illogical geographic entities. If I had a magic wand, I would follow Ian and John's precedent by designing unitary authorities in the English counties, based as nearly as possible on traditional and historic loyalties. Along with the boroughs, this would provide a single tier beneath the new mayor of London and unelected regional assemblies.

(It is only a matter of time before one of the parties commits itself to making them fully elected.) The next step is to bring a new opportunity for their management and administration. There is something amateurish about a system that expects an elected politician to work full-time, presiding over a budget running into hundreds of millions of pounds, administered by a chief executive earning the better part of £100,000 a year, and get a derisory income. Most ministers work no harder; and no backbench MP is under anything like the same pressure.

But I would go further now, and by statute. I would use my wand to introduce properly paid and directly elected chief executives. He or, I expect, she in a significant number of cases, would serve a fixed term, and the need for votes from a broad constituency would protect suburban and rural constituences.

It would in my view be wrong to go through this reform and leave the relationship between central and local government largely unchanged. It is not as though central government has proved itself uniquely successful this past half century. I would look for a system that encouraged more initiative and variety at local level. I recognise that as central taxpayers are the largest contributors to local spending, and that as central government uses local government to deliver central services, there is an inevitable partnership. But today it is one-sided and crushing.

The first initiative would be to list and expose all the detailed controls local authorities face from each Whitehall department. The second follows in the form of a political bonfire. But the real dynamic should come from a break with the automatic flow of funds by formula. The model is there in the concept of City Challenge, under which local authorities were invited to submit proposals for rebuilding inner urban communities. The test to obtain central money was the quality of their initiatives and private sector commitment.

The effect was electric - in particular on the authorities that lost.

There was never a faster way to spread best practice.

In practice the elected chief executive would draw up a corporate plan for his authority. Michael Howard introduced some exciting work in this context called City Pride. The plan would have to cover quality outputs not just financial inputs. Just think of the effect of this on the education service.

We talk about serving the people. How much better to involve them in setting the objectives as we did with City Challenge. The private sector would gain from a knowledge of long-term local strategy, but could in many ways enhance it by co-operation with the various agencies of the public sector such as universities, hospitals and schools in such fields as training, innovation and development.

The job of these new chief executives would, I believe, be prestigious and challenging. It should be part of the building and rebuilding of our society for the next century.

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