Sir Merrick Cockell: England is the last remnant of the British Empire

The Conservative who used to speak for every council in the land is passionate about devolution - and the one part of the UK that hasn’t had it

During the recent local elections, the results came rolling across the TV screens. And all the commentators immediately put them in a national, Westminster context.

As to what the changes would actually mean in the town halls, in local communities, there was barely a mention. The studio chat and punditry focused entirely on the mood of the main parties’ MPs, whether the standing of their leaders was enhanced or weakened, and how the results would translate to the forthcoming general election.

It added to the growing sense of local government not being taken seriously, of Britain being run by a remote, aloof metropolitan elite. Whitehall does not trust councils to spend public money wisely and sees them as an easy target for cuts; big business prefers to strike deals and partnerships with central government; councillors are not the highly regarded figures they once were, no longer pillars of the local establishment.

Yet localism is spoken of constantly as being on the agenda; and real power has devolved from the centre to Wales and Scotland. It seems like an opportune moment, then, to meet Sir Merrick Cockell, until just a few weeks ago chairman of the Local Government Association, which represents 373 councils in England and Wales.

Sir Merrick, 57, was leader of Kensington and Chelsea council for 13 years. He’s still a Tory councillor in the London borough, and is executive chairman of Cratus, a public relations agency specialising in local public bodies.

The last few years, he says, have been “tough. After the general election all the councils were hit with cuts – we took the brunt of the Government’s austerity measures. Everyone was depressed and under the cosh.”

Town halls were required to take the “largest cut of any area of government. We knew it was coming, but even so – the local government grant was slashed by 40 per cent.”

Not surprisingly for a loyal Tory, Sir Merrick does not blame the Treasury. “They had to deal with the deficit quickly.” It meant, though, that councils had to focus quickly. “They had immediately to look at how they could do things differently, how they could provide services while keeping costs down.”

Sir Merrick is very much aware of councils’ shortcomings. “Local government has got to engage differently with people than it did in the past. Town halls used to be very grand, distant and paternal, now they’ve got have more grown-up, closer relationships with the communities they serve... They need to ask, ‘What really matters to you as residents?’”

Saying that, it is the case, declares Sir Merrick, that “too often, local government is taken for granted by Westminster”. He does not single out individual parties for blame. “It’s the same from all parties.”

Something happens, he says, when MPs reach Westminster. They suddenly see the bigger picture and issues on a national scale. The losers, inevitably, are their former pals back in the constituency, on the council. “Some MPs understand local government and the problems we face, and continue to listen – and others no longer want to know.”

As chairman of the LGA, Sir Merrick oversaw the Rewiring Public Services campaign. The idea was to rejuvenate local democracy, restore civic pride, improve public services, and boost economic growth. It was founded on 10 propositions, among them: giving people a meaningful say on local taxes and spending; the creation of an “England minister” to fight the devolved nations for a greater slice of government funding; reducing ministers’ ability to intervene in local decisions; using municipal bonds to pay for investment in infrastructure.

It was a comprehensive overhaul, although little of it was out of kilter with the Prime Minister’s localism agenda. What was David Cameron’s response?  Cameron shied away from the notion of “rewiring” but once he realised it carried measures such as closer co-operation between agencies, and the breaking down of barriers in sectors like health and education, he was more accepting.

Rewiring, says Sir Merrick, was an attempt to join local government together. Few people realise, he says, the sheer range of the spectrum of town hall activities, from housing to libraries to schools to waste removal to parking to social care to planning. If those departments could be made to work with each other, and also with outside services, then a more efficient framework could result.

He’s passionate about devolution for England. “It’s not called that in Whitehall,” he says, laughing. “They like to speak in terms of ‘earned autonomy’.” But, he adds, however it is described, England needs more of it, and a greater say in how public money is spent.

As chair of the LGA, he heard complaints from communities in England that public services in Scotland were not being cut to the same extent as south of the border. “England is the last remnant of the British empire. Everyone else has been given back their freedom.”

The Government, he believes, is reluctant to go down the devolution for England path. “They don’t want to make the mistakes of increased regionalisation that have occurred in the past. They’re wary of adding another tier of elected politicians. I can understand that.”

But, he argues, “The last thing England needs is only Whitehall deciding where the money should go.”

A recent case in point, he says, is the announcement by George Osborne that a high-speed rail link, HS3, will be built between Manchester and Leeds. “It shouldn’t be the Chancellor saying it, but the mayors of cities across the north saying, ‘We want to do it, and this is how we’re going to fund it’. They should have the idea, seek Treasury approval, and issue bonds to pay for it.”

Councils, he advocates, should come together to present a joint front on regional issues, to decide how money should be raised via local taxes, such as business rates, and how it should be spent. “You would get scale that is not there at present. Instead of one council fighting its corner, there might be 10... The Government has got to say, ‘The default is not Westminster, the default lies with local communities’.”

One area, he says, highlights the need for reform. Care for the elderly threatens to swamp councils – they must provide it, but costs are rising inexorably. At the same time, they’re expected to pay for leisure centres, libraries, and parks. Councils, he says, must be given more discretion. And that should apply across the whole gamut of local government functions – so, for instance, school-leavers would receive training according to the needs of their local area, not based on a quota sent from Whitehall.

“All round the country there are imbalances between the training of people and the availability of jobs. Everywhere, we’re training hairdressers but there are no jobs for them, and meanwhile in some places they’re not training enough people for the construction industry.” As a counter-balance to more freedom and power, he would introduce local audit committees to hold town halls to account. “People would see what was happening to their money.”

It’s such a major subject, and is so obviously in need of a rethink. I get the feeling he could go on forever. But we must stop. He’s got his meeting to get to. The subject for the discussion? Reform of local government.

Curriculum vitae

Born 1957. Educated at Pierrepont School, Frensham

Career Worked at an overseas trading company; founded import-export company, Barber Cockell; executive chairman of Cratus communications agency

Political career Tory councillor in Kensington and Chelsea since 1986; council leader from 2000 to 2013; chairman of Local Government Association for three years until last month

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