Gummer attacks 'arrogance' of local councils: Minister says authorities must be made accessible to a wider range of people. Ngaio Crequer reports

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Indy Politics
JOHN GUMMER, Secretary of State for the Environment, yesterday accused local government of arrogance in wanting more power for itself, while refusing to divest itself of power down the political ladder.

Mr Gummer, in sometimes angry exchanges with councillors and local government officials, said: 'I am fed up with local education authorities talking about 'our schools' when they are governors' schools or parents' schools. There is no reason why they should not run themselves.'

He said it was 'outrageous' that further education colleges should not be allowed to govern themselves. Schools now running themselves received more money and were more efficient. Local government had been 'the least generous' in handing on powers to others, he said. To jeers and howls, he added: 'The public will not be impressed by local government that does not want to share powers with others . . . Some district councils have been deplorable in not allowing their towns to run things.'

He said that if local government was prepared to give powers to lower levels, such as parishes or schools, central government would respond, but he was unable later to give examples of how this might happen.

Mr Gummer said he applauded the Government's educational reforms, which increased the power of parents and governors, and he praised housing reforms which gave tenants the chance to manage their estates.

He asked the Joint Local Government Conference in London: 'How ready are you to let local people have a real say in the level and quality of local services they receive? How ready are you to delegate the organisation of services to a more local unit - be it town, parish, village, housing estate, school, suburb or whatever?'

Mr Gummer yesterday published the report of a working party on the running of councils. It suggests employers should be paid to allow people time off to be councillors. The aim is to make councils more effective.

There should be more councillors from the self-employed, single parents, those with dependent relatives, night-shift workers, students and others. Changes in the way councils are run could improve their accessibility. More people would want to become councillors if councils were more open and decisions could be changed. 'They should not be faced with incomprehensible bureaucracy, financial hardship or unnecessarily long hours in meetings which purport to take decisions which in reality have been taken elsewhere.'

The report on the Internal Management of Local Authorities in England, says that the way councils are run 'may not be the best way of running an authority, with a new role, in the 21st century'. There is 'little support' for paying salaries to councillors, but allowances should be improved so that people do not suffer financial hardship, and a greater range of candidates is attracted.

Andreas Whittam Smith, editor of the Independent, said in a keynote speech that local government needed to be a vibrant part of society with sufficient legitimacy so that it shared power with central government rather than, as seemed to be the legal case at the moment, merely borrowed it.

Regular elections conferred a legitimacy which was direct and not given by central government, even though we did not have a written constitution. The question of legitimacy had been 'dangerously neglected'. Although decisions to take powers away from local authorities could be argued on their merits, there was a danger that eventually local government would collapse as a result.

He said that the national voice for local government was muted, and that it ought to stand side by side with the CBI and the TUC in influence.