Leading article: Another cut to the heart of local democracy

The Government should be empowering councils, not weakening them

A poll of councillors for this newspaper shows a widespread fear that local authorities will bear a disproportionate burden of the public spending cuts when they eventually arrive. It would be nice to be able to dismiss this as special pleading from an arm of government. But, sadly, it is a well-grounded fear. At a time of enforced fiscal austerity ministers have a habit of reducing the local government budget and pushing hard decisions about which public services to cut into the laps of local authorities. The Government and the Conservatives are both being reticent about where they would make savings to balance the national budget in the coming years, but it would be no surprise to see a continuation of this rather cowardly pattern.

The very fact that councillors expect to be stitched up in this way emphasises the fundamental imbalance in the relationship between local and national government. British councils now raise only a quarter of their income from local taxation; a considerably lower proportion than 20 years ago and also lower than many of our European peers. The balance of their funding is raised at a national level and is delivered via the Treasury. Councils have also been progressively stripped of authority, with government seeking to deliver ever more public services in education and health directly from Whitehall. This centralising trend began under Margaret Thatcher, a by-product of her struggle with left-wing local councils. But this is a cross-party disease. Labour has shown no inclination to reverse the Westminster power grab over the past decade.

This is the reason local democracy is so feeble in this country. A measly proportion of the electorate turn out to vote in local polls. And considering how little power councillors wield, this should come as no great surprise; nor should the low quality of those who are often elected. Why should someone smart and competent want to stand for election to a post that has little power and scant responsibility?

The way out of this hole is for national government to devolve revenue raising powers to local councils (by ending the cap on local council taxes and business rates) and to grant them greater control over spending decisions. Councils should be set free to look for local solutions to specific local problems, from crime, to litter, to social breakdown. This is how things are done in much of mainland Europe and the results are often considerably better than they are on these islands. For some reason the belief has taken hold in Britain that national government is, by its nature, more efficient and wiser than the local variety. And national politicians, whatever platitudes both main parties occasionally articulate about devolving power, tend to believe it is best exercised by them. Yet there is no evidence from our experiment in extreme centralisation over the past two decades to support this belief. Indeed, the evidence from other nations suggests the very opposite.

As for local finance, the justification for a policy of devolution should be obvious. With local councils in control of their own budgets they could plan properly and be truly accountable to their communities for the decisions they make. Some authorities might even steward their finances sensibly enough to allow them to avoid cuts altogether. Many politicians will be uncomfortable with the idea, particularly at a time of national hardship, but the future of government ought to be local.