Leading article: Another cut to the heart of local democracy

The Government should be empowering councils, not weakening them

Related Topics

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.

React Now

Latest stories from i100
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Installation and Service / Security Engineer

£22000 - £40000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This company is part of a Group...

Recruitment Genius: Service Charge Accounts Assistant

£16000 - £18000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Are you a a young, dynamic pers...

Cancer Research UK: Corporate Partnerships Volunteer Events Coordinator – London

Voluntary: Cancer Research UK: We’re looking for someone to support our award ...

Ashdown Group: Head of IT - Hertfordshire - £90,000

£70000 - £90000 per annum + bonus + car allowance + benefits: Ashdown Group: H...

Day In a Page

Read Next

Errors & Omissions: Outgunned by a lack of military knowledge

Guy Keleny
Ukip leader Nigel Farage in Tiny Tim’s tea shop while canvassing in Rochester this week  

General Election 2015: What on earth happened to Ukip?

Matthew Norman
Major medical journal Lancet under attack for 'extremist hate propaganda' over its coverage of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict

Lancet accused of 'anti-Israel hate propaganda' over coverage of Gaza conflict

Threat to free speech as publishers of renowned medical journal are accused of inciting hatred and violence
General Election 2015: Tories and Lib Dems throw their star names west to grab votes

All noisy on the Lib Dems' western front

The party has deployed its big guns in Cornwall to save its seats there. Simon Usborne heads to the heart of the battle
How Etsy became a crafty little earner: The online market has been floated for £1.2bn, but can craft and capitalism coexist?

How Etsy became a crafty little earner

The online market has been floated for £1.2bn, but can craft and capitalism coexist?
Guy Ritchie is the latest filmmaker to tackle King Arthur - one of our most versatile heroes

King Arthur is inspiring Guy Ritchie

Raluca Radulescu explains why his many permutations - from folk hero to chick-lit hunk - never cease to fascinate
Apple Watch: Will it live up to expectations for the man or woman on the street?

Apple Watch: Will it live up to expectations?

The Apple Watch has apparently sold millions even before its launch tomorrow
Don't fear the artichoke: it's a good cook's staple, with more choice than you'd think

Don't fear the artichoke

Artichokes are scary - they've got spikes and hairy bits, and British cooks tend to give them a wide berth. But they're an essential and delicious part of Italian cuisine
11 best men's socks

11 best men's socks

Make a statement with your accessories, starting from the bottom up
Paul Scholes column: Eden Hazard would be my Player of the Year – but I wonder if he has that appetite for goals of Messi or Ronaldo

Paul Scholes column

Hazard would be my Player of the Year – but I wonder if he has that appetite for goals of Messi or Ronaldo
Frank Warren: Tyson Fury will be closely watching Wladimir Klitschko... when he wins it'll be time to do a deal

Frank Warren's Ringside

Tyson Fury will be closely watching Wladimir Klitschko... when he wins it'll be time to do a deal
London Marathon 2015: Kenya's brothers in arms Wilson Kipsang and Dennis Kimetto ready to take on world

Kenya's brothers in arms take on world

Last year Wilson Kipsang had his marathon record taken off him by training partner and friend Dennis Kimetto. They talk about facing off in the London Marathon
Natalie Bennett interview: I've lost track of the last time I saw my Dad but it's not because I refuse to fly

Natalie Bennett interview: I've lost track of the last time I saw my Dad

Green leader prefers to stay clear of her 'painful' family memories but is more open about 'utterly unreasonable' personal attacks
Syria conflict: Khorasan return with a fresh influx of fighters awaiting the order to start 'shooting the birds'

Khorasan is back in Syria

America said these al-Qaeda militants were bombed out of the country last year - but Kim Sengupta hears a different story
General Election 2015: Is William Cash the man to woo Warwickshire North for Ukip?

On the campaign trail with Ukip

Is William Cash the man to woo Warwickshire North?
Four rival Robin Hood movies get Hollywood go-head - and Friar Tuck will become a superhero

Expect a rush on men's tights

Studios line up four Robin Hoods productions
Peter Kay's Car Share: BBC show is the comedian's first TV sitcom in a decade

In the driving seat: Peter Kay

Car Share is the comedian's first TV sitcom in a decade. The programme's co-creator Paul Coleman reveals the challenges of getting the show on the road