Councillors have important jobs. They are representatives of their local communities, sorting out problems for people in their wards and divisions. They decide what services to provide or how much service to offer. They are elected to offer direction to their town, village, district or county. They should represent the case for quality and champion the taxpayer. The justice of the peace may have a longer tradition in English constitutional development as the office-holder capable of ruling, judging and administering with local knowledge, but the tradition of elected local officials has been strong and important for more than a hundred years. We do not seek to diminish that role.
It is is pity that only a minority of the electorate turns out for local elections. Councillors and candidates deserve better, given the effort they put into the campaign and the power they will be exercising. Parliament should uphold the significance of the elected voice in local communities.
The Government has a programme of local authority reform designed to do just that. In shire areas, we are asking if single councils would be better than counties and districts? Is there a natural area of government that could have a single local council? Would people prefer it, and understand more clearly who was responsible? If, as a result, councillors have a wider range of functions, their status will rise and the task be more sought after.
With some acquiescence from the Labour Party, we have introduced a new tax based on property and people that could create a basis for local authority finance for years to come. All who believe in local democracy should agree to put the rancour of recent years about local authority taxation behind them so that local authorities have a chance to show their paces.
The truth of much of this has been drowned out by a debate about money. Because much of the money spent by local councils comes from central government, some feel that he who pays the piper will inevitably call the tune.
Councils spend pounds 70bn a year. Too few think that this sum buys very much or offers much choice. Some think that the Government is out to subtract function after function from local authorities until councils are left emaciated and without purpose.
This is a curious argument when local councillors of all political parties come to the Department of the Environment each year to tell us that new functions and responsibilities that Parliament has given them require a big increase in their grant.
It is true that Parliament has imposed many new requirements on councils: environmental protection, strengthened planning and care in the community are the most recent. Although some functions - gas, electricity, water and, more recently, grant-maintained schools, for example - have been transferred away from local government control, the march of expenditure is upwards. The piper is paid a salary, but can pipe any decent tune he likes.
I am out to encourage the best in local government. Local politicians have considerable influence in their communities. When they have something interesting to say they can command a voice on local radio, a presence on regional television, or a column in their local newspaper. They can speak for their constituents, demand a better performance from their council, or offer leadership.
There are many things they can do that require little money and are valuable. They can fashion a future for their city centre or market square, they can set out to attract private investment, they can plan where houses, factories and shops will be built and where green spaces will be left, they can work with the police authority on controlling crime and they can set standards for local community life.
To say little of the many things they do that cost lots of money. In the current financial year they are spending pounds 1,800 for every adult in the land, to educate our children, care for the elderly, and empty our dustbins. Some councils do this better than others. Good councillors can make all the difference.
The mighty agenda of how local government can best be managed is next on the table. I want to talk to local government about how the job of the councillor can be made more satisfying. Do we need as many committee meetings as some councils propose? Do papers and agendas need to be so voluminous and complex? Does everything need to be phrased in a special local authority jargon that can be very off-putting to the newly elected member? Could we have more evening meetings so that people with busy jobs have a chance of attending? How should councillors be rewarded?
Local government has great opportunities if it wishes to seize them. It can now take advantage of the new spirit abroad in central/local government relationships. It can take advantage of more stability in its financial base and in the opportunity that reform presents. Good councils and councillors will seize the initiative, set out plans for their local communities, offer the leadership that towns and cities require, pioneer new and better ways of delivering services, show themselves to be wise regulators and governors, and have an ear to the popular will.
The Secretary of State and I stand ready to co-operate with those of all parties, or of none, who put the interest of their communities and good local government first. There will not always be a bottomless purse, and the answer to every problem is not always to reach for the chequebook. Within the large budget at the disposal of local government there is great scope to do good - and considerable freedom to get it wrong. I ask only that councillors strive to use those freedoms to best effect and that the electorate be the judge. I am happy to treat local government in an adult way: in return I ask it to rise to its responsibilities.
The author is Minister for Local Government and Inner Cities.
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