Over the past 20 years, local councils have been "progressively stripped of authority" by Conservative and Labour Governments, according to a leader in The Independent this week. The truth, in my view, is very different.
It is certainly the case that the record card that the Conservatives left was one where local government was under-funded and lacked the teeth to address local problems. Labour set about overturning this, leading to a much changed picture today. And through the radical reforms that I outlined at the start of summer, local government will be strengthened still further, by giving citizens a bigger role in shaping the places in which they live and the public services they use.
This is not about strengthening councils for their own sake, rather to underpin the rights of citizens through their elected representatives, and make sure that local government can fight the corner for local people.
I want to see the scrutiny powers of councils over local services, introduced by the Labour government, extended. People individually often feel that they don't have the power, detailed knowledge or time, to tackle service providers like the police, utility companies or transport bosses on their own. And people's needs – whether education, health or social care related – can be complex and often don't start and end with one service or organisation.
Enhanced scrutiny would enable councils to take a lead role in ending bureaucracy and duplication, increasing value for money, and personalising services. It would also mean more local influence and accountability over more than £100bn of public money a year that is currently spent on local services.
Town halls could hold select committee-style sessions with councillors grilling anyone delivering local services, from police chiefs and health bosses when they are coming up short. Or look at the services of organisations like local transport providers or utilities which affect people's quality of life to help deliver better local solutions. This is at the heart of the proposals, placing councillors – with their local democratic authority – to challenge unelected bureaucrats and deliver for citizens.
Finding solutions to the challenges we face today can require action on a global, national and local scale. Taking climate change, central government can lead – as Labour did in introducing the world's first Climate Change Bill – but it is local councils that can and do drive change on the ground, reducing waste, boosting recycling and developing greener public transport.
The importance of local solutions and innovation is why I'm asking whether councils have all the powers they need to drive forward action in their communities on climate change. Should councils, for example, be given local carbon budgets as a spur? And how do we accelerate councils working with local people to determine, finance and design a shift to greener living?
This greater autonomy to act on climate change is the next stage in a progressive, wider shift in power from Whitehall to the town hall that has been underway over the last 10 years.
Alongside the reforms that I want to introduce, councils now have three-year funding settlements, greater flexibility on how they spend money, and fewer targets. Councils now have a remit of working with the police to tackle anti-social behaviour and work jointly with the NHS in social care and on public health. Next year they will have responsibility for commissioning education and training for 16 to 19 year olds – funding worth around £7bn a year. And this year we gave councils the power to raise a supplement on the business rate to support local projects to underpin long-term economic development.
We know that not every problem can be solved from a desk in Whitehall. It needs central and local working together. And this is what we are doing to help people through the effects of the economic downturn, on jobs and on homes.
The changes we have already introduced and what I am proposing we do amounts to the biggest shift in power to local government in a generation. It enables local councillors to act in delivering local services, to champion their areas, stand up for citizens, and to meet the challenges that lie ahead. And it enables local people to hold them to account if they do not deliver.
John Denham is Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government