The Ideas Factory is a chance for you to pitch your own idea of what should be in the next Liberal Democrat manifesto. The proposal here is not the policy of the Social Liberal Forum. We will however be passing it – and the response it generates – onto the Manifesto Working Group.
David Heigham: Our power to decide locally has been centralised, is still drifting to Whitehall, and should go back where it belongs.
Local government exists to enable us, locally, to decide amongst ourselves everything not decided nationally. Everything that can be decided locally should be local.
We, locally, should pay for what we decide locally.
We need to enable broad consent and not alienate groups amongst us. How authorities are elected will condition the way they do their job; no system of election is perfect.
The smaller the ward, the greater the turnout of voters. Small wards and single transferable votes help elect members who the voter can feel is accountable.
Small wards mean small authorities or large Councils. Both are workable. A local authority should be whatever size the people of the area want.
Many large authorities now effectively localise themselves admirably. We need to take this further. We need citizen juries to sit and help elected councillors decide a wide range of very local decisions.
The most local level of decision is that of individuals and households. Transfers of some collective decisions into choices by families and individuals can and should flourish by local choice.
In few public services is there any clear relationship between amount spent and level of service provided. National government should forget about setting these amounts. How the money is spent is much more important, and that is a local matter. The Audit Commission and similar bodies help. National “inspectorates” are much less effective.
National government has no need to control absolutely the total of local spending in any given period, but should be able to influence it more effectively. Clear local government responsibility for collecting in taxes what it proposes to spend could strengthen national economic management.. Formula and general grants from national to local government can and should disappear.
The available and workable local taxes are property tax; and the main rates of income tax on wages, salaries, self-employment and pensions. Together, they are capable of financing local government spending without general grant. Total amounts we pay in tax can remain unchanged.
The same level of local service should mean the same rate of local tax. Taking the lowest generally achievable cost for a good standard of each particular service and relating the totals to population and other indictors of need gives the right way of equalising. Redistributions of tax monies on that basis can and should be left to local authorities. National government’s interest ends when they agree.
A continuous pressure for greater efficiency will develop as lower cost ways of achieving better services are found and proved in the future.
Whitehall control over local indebtedness is fully adequate but ridiculously over-detailed. Authorities could distribute the limit of new indebtedness between themselves. They know what needs spending where. Whitehall does not.
We can expect to take two Parliaments delivering a reform designed to last for generations. The first will work through the reforms and the second apply them locally.
Richard Huzzey: I am sure that Liberal Democrats will remain committed to devolution in particular and federalism matters. Reviving individuals’ feelings of influence and involvement in their community are vital to participatory democracy. Exactly how this agenda would be pursued in legislation and local government reorganisation is a bigger question!
Of course, there are some obvious challenges thrown forth by devolution. If we practice what we preach, Lib Dems will have to respect the right of Tory or Labour councils to pursue schemes under their devolved powers that we disapprove of. We would also have to have a good explanation of why we support a “postcode lottery”, as local autonomy would come to be seen.
I’d also like to see the old liberal principle of decisions being taken on the lowest possible level extended to the powers of the European Union. It should look for continental approaches to immigration and climate change, and encroach less on national issues.
David Hall-Matthews: I agree absolutely with the principles here. Devolution of responsibility without devolution of finances is worse than nothing. However, there is a danger that local service provision matched solely to consensual local taxation will result in much worse services in poorer and less socially cohesive areas, e.g. inner cities, than elsewhere. To some extent, we may have to accept that the “postcode lottery” is a fair price to pay for reviving most (if not all) local authorities. However, I would therefore go further and say that central government should allocate substantial central resources to local authorities (or at least to those that need it) – without interfering in how they are then spent locally. A large part of the reason for voter apathy in (some) local elections is the perception (however unfair) that councils don’t make much difference to people’s lives. The more responsibility and financial muscle they have – in addition to greater local accountability as David proposes – the more people are likely to engage with them.
James Graham: There is very little I would take issue with here and I strongly endorse David’s call for smaller wards (which means more councillors), although we must recognise that will not be electorally popular. What might be somewhat more popular would be more frequent elections – at the lowest level of government I can see no reason not to have all out elections every two years.
If there is a risk with radical localism it is that some local authorities would be able to completely tear up service provision in a way that would hurt some of the most vulnerable in society, and that some area will be less wealthier than others. The former problem makes me a fan of justiciable social and economic rights entrenched in a constitution. The latter demands some kind of redistributive method and I have yet to come across a better system than some kind of national progressive tax on land values, the revenue of which would be doled out to local authorities on a per capita basis.