Freedom for Kingston! The time has come to let our councils break away from Whitehall

'I don't think it’s going to work because the Government won't let it,' said a councillor

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The Independent Online

There is nuttiness in the air in Kingston, south-west London. It’s where I live, and the talk in the local press is of secession, independence and freedom.

This, in a suburban area, not deepest Cornwall, Northumbria, or  Scotland. Kingston, dear old Kingston – the proudly proclaimed earliest “royal” borough where ancient kings of England were once crowned (the coronation stone is opposite Wagamama).

In truth, little happens in Kingston, which is why we like it so much. There’s an up-and-coming university, the Rose Theatre (declaration of interest – I’m a director), great shops, the River Thames and Richmond Park. It’s near enough to central London. And there’s a fiendish one-way system that keeps visitors at bay.

But suddenly, heads are being filled with thoughts of other kinds of barriers, of gates on the A3, and walls on the Richmond Road, defending us against outsiders.

The reason for the unlikely rebelliousness is not the presence of some deep-seated Braveheart tendency but the council, which has said it wants to break away from Whitehall. They want to free the town from being dependent on the Government’s yearly grant, and do their own thing – specifically make up the shortfall by keeping a greater amount of the business rates.

The split has been proposed by the new council leader, Kevin Davis. For years, Davis, a Tory, watched as the Liberal Democrat-run body tried to balance the books, never knowing how much would be handed down from on high, from central government.

Davis is a progressive, who has come in with some fresh thinking. No sooner did he take charge after the local elections in May than he was proposing talks with Richmond to see if they could share back-room support functions, and save Kingston £8m a year. Those discussions broke down because the two authorities could not agree on where councillors’ votes would go if the union went ahead.

But you get the picture. Davis wants to shake things up, and has little truck for the old ways that make little sense and do his borough a disservice.

Roughly 80 per cent of Kingston council’s turnover comes from the council tax and other revenue streams. The remainder is supplied by the Government.

Davis wants to go it alone, to make up the gap by retaining more of the business rates. To that end, he wants to redevelop a large slice of the town centre, currently ranked among the top retailing destinations in the UK, to make it even better, even more of a draw, and to raise higher business rates that way.

It all makes perfect sense. Eric Pickles, the Communities and Local Government Secretary, should be happy because he’s long maintained that councils must learn to stand on their own two feet. He and his colleagues can use the Kingston money for something else, for paying down the public spending deficit for instance.

Kingston is delighted, because it gets to be in charge of its own destiny, and does not have to live from year to year, uncertain as to how much will come from central government. The local government expert Professor Tony Travers, of the London School of Economics, has said the measure could give Kingston “considerable consistency to plan”.

But the idea has been under consideration for six months and there is still not a green light from Westminster. Obviously, it’s a major step and in the context of central government, six months is not a huge amount of time.

The suspicion has to be, however, that it’s not so clear-cut, that some of Pickles’ team may not be as keen. It’s a precedent, and others are bound to follow. Already, later this month, council leaders in east London are meeting to plan taking greater control of transport and business development.

The Tories have been actively encouraging the notion of elected city mayors in the North of England with increased powers. George Osborne has been speaking of a unified regional authority for the North. Ever since the nationalist near-victory in the Scottish referendum, devolution has swept these islands, much of it fuelled by Westminster.

Which is why the Kingston move is so interesting. It comes at just the right time, and, given everything else that is going on, ought to be pushing at an open door.

But, you can hear the mandarins whispering to ministers: “Agree to that and it’s the end, national government will have lost its hold over the town halls.” Not just the officials. Pickles’ Liberal Democrat partners, and Labour are bound to have questions over the Kingston division.

The local reactions from those parties have been telling. For the Lib Dems, councillor Liz Green said she thought it was “an excellent idea for Kingston” but thought the Government would want to take part of any extra business rate the borough generated. The Labour group leader Linsey Cottington said: “It certainly would be reasonable for the council to pursue this, just to see if there’s any possibility. I don’t think it’s going to work because the Government won’t let it.”

So, lukewarm both of them, and expecting the government to kibosh the Davis initiative.

The downside of his scheme is if Kingston goes bust – that the hoped-for town centre redevelopment fails to take off, that the higher take from business rates fails to materialise, either through economic downturn or simple bad planning. What then? Kingston, presumably, would attempt to go cap in hand to Westminster, pleading for assistance. It could expect little shrift because if ministers caved in willy-nilly, then that would be an invitation for other councils that have also broken away to behave irresponsibly, in the knowledge they would be always be bailed out.

Which, probably, is the argument being used against the Davis ruse in Whitehall – that Kingston might be OK, that compared to elsewhere it’s a well-off place, and its council is financially prudent and well capable of managing its own affairs. But other councils are not like that. Unfortunately, local government history is littered with examples of spending white elephants and shocking budgetary mismanagement. You can hear the adviser murmuring “Militant, Derek Hatton and Liverpool” to Pickles.

That, though, would be a great pity. Each to their own, judging each council and their demography individually must be the approach. UDI for Kingston! Now there’s a battle cry and a half.