Remorseless decline of town hall power

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The Independent Online
The local government elections come just before the nation celebrates the 50th anniversary of VE Day. For Britain's councils, it has been a half-century of decline.

The election of Clement Attlee's Labour government, with its ambitious programme of nationalisation, started the process of sucking power and responsibility away from town halls towards central government.

But it was Margaret Thatcher's three administrations, followed by John Major's, which floored the accelerator pedal. Since 1945, councils have lost responsibility for hospitals, water, gas and electricity supply, polytechnics and further education colleges.

Councils no longer build homes, while millions of their tenants have purchased their houses or seen ownership pass to housing associations. More than a thousand schools have "opted out" and are now funded by central government.

Function after duty after responsibility have been removed over the half- century; next year, councils' responsibility for controlling waste disposal is being taken over by a new environment agency. The only significant move in the opposite direction has been to enhance councils' role in looking after elderly people and other vulnerable groups - "care in the community".

True, local government still remains responsible for a broad range of vital services. But only 18 per cent of this money is raised through local taxes set by the councils themselves; in 1979, it was 60 per cent. This shift marks how weak British councils have become.

The local government tax paid by industry and commerce is set by the Government. More than half of councils' income arrives as direct government grants. The remainder raised through the locally determined council tax is strictly limited by the Government's powers to cap expenditure.

Councils are well on the way to becoming mere administrators of contracted- out local services, with funding and service standards determined by central government.

Given all that, perhaps voters cannot be blamed for staying at home tomorrow or voting on national issues. Although corruption, profligacy and daftness on the part of councillors was partly responsible for the decline of local government, hope of their revival rests with Whitehall and Westminster.

Nicholas Schoon

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