A full-blooded commitment to going local

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.

The Proposal

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.

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4 comments on “A full-blooded commitment to going local
  1. Jock says:

    I can support all of this, insofar as it goes. Though I’m not sure about “citizens’ juries” – what are these really? Compulsory focus groups? Some of the measures are reasonably achievable, others it is quite difficult to see how you would legislate for it.

    I tend to view this from the other side – that we shift from a top down government to a bottom up government; so called cellular democracy (nothing to do with phone-in voting!).

    The default is that no higher tier of government has any power other than what local neighbourhood councils explicity collaborate upwards on. And these may be bodies that we currently think of as “government” or they may be single purpose associations of neighbourhood councils for example clubbing together to justify the building of a school or hospital or some such.

    Of course this would probably be a step too far for a political party to want to advocate – after all, it would almost inevitably lead to less of a political silo mentality as people elected by just their street for example are likely to care more about the people they elect and less about what rosette they might wear. Which would be a good thing I think, but it would be like turkeys voting for Christmas to a political party! Albeit a real test of just how far we would go in support of “devolution”.

  2. David Heigham says:

    I have had my say, so I will just raise questions.

    Richard Huzzey

    We are fellow travellers. Could federalism for England be on the basis of regions made up of local authorities who want to come together? Shouldn’t we expect some LibDem Councils also to act locally in ways which do not match national policy? Given that the EU preach ‘subsidiarity’ (their word for the old Liberal principle of local decision that you quote), isn’t the problem to get them to actually apply it?

    David Hall-Matthews

    Thanks for thinking that these ideas are worth improving on. Is it still the case that the Councils which cut local spending to reduce Council Tax tend to be rural? Isn’t a problem in many countries that inner city authorities tend to spend more on services and deliver less? Am I wrong in thinking that the worst ‘postcode lottery’ is between the centrally administered NHS regions?

    James Graham

    Thanks for your full-blooded commitment to this Forum. How does more voters turning out in smaller wards square with the idea that smaller wards would be electorally unpopular? Would not simple per capita redistribution of tax money leave the authorities with the worst needs very poorly funded? How would my proposals prevent national government from enacting entitlements, such as the entitlement to education? (I will look further at Land Tax; present property taxation through Council Tax and the National Business Rate are certainly a mess).


    ” … people elected by just their street for example are likely to care more about the people they elect and less about what rosette they might wear.” Right on! However, doesn’t the way tyrants prefer indirect elections make you nervous about the layers of indirect elections embedded in cellular democracy? ( I think something similar to cellular democracy used to be referred to as a form of communalism.) And isn’t the problem now to get from where we are towards much more bottom up government?

  3. Jock says:

    David, yes, there is a huge issue abouthow to get from here to there, but I’m not sure it is any more difficult than some of what is suggested in the original posting. That’s the only reason I suggested it as an alternative vision.

    I don’t know about tyrants and indirect elections. Honestly. Who? Nonetheless, you may be mistaking me for a supporter of a “nation state” at any level – I am not! I think those community councils would act as procurement bodies, sending representatives to the local mutual hospital building project and so on. I don’t envisage (as Fred Foldvary does because he is positing the idea as an alternative mechanism for electing a federal government) them necessarily agreeing to ever higher levels of governent with any kind of “general competence”, merely to bodies that address specific issues.

  4. Tom says:

    “A local authority should be whatever size the people of the area want.” Most people would be don’t knows, couldn’t care.

    I read this article looking for specific proposals, but there were none.

    Without control over tax raising and spending, local authorities have no power.

    If you want to revive local government – here are a few off the wall suggestions.

    1. Education is a national service and ringfenced spending – councils don’t run it, they administer it. Take it out of council control.

    2. Double council tax and remove all exemptions and discounts – such as the single person discount. Reduce central govt funding by a similar ammount.

    3. Watch as people hit for a bill for £3000 suddenly become a lot keener on knowing how the council spendings their money.

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