Prospects for codifying the relationship between central and local government - Political and Constitutional Reform Contents

Annex: What does the code mean for me?

A new constitutional settlement for local government will be the life blood of our democracy, but it must be seen to be relevant to the ordinary local elector. So what difference would be evident in your area?

There would be a new buzz as local government set out its ambitions for its people, its areas and its economy, showing the ideas, the drive and the determination to take localism further. Surveys show electors already have more faith in local government than central government. More than that, councils have proved that they can deliver localism in action, making a difference to communities. Local councils should be held to account and fired if necessary by local electors.

Local decisions about local matters are more sensitive, and less crude than 'one size fits all' from Whitehall. Electors would notice the difference in many areas. Here are five:

1. Retaining and raising local income

Building the local economy and boosting local job creation is one of the main benefits of letting councils get on with the job that local people elected them to do. The devolved Administrations do not have to wait for clearance from Whitehall. Local democracy in England should be in the same situation. If you saw that a part of your income tax came directly back from HMRC to your council then you, like other every other elector, would take a much closer interest in local decisions, and your council, and value for money.

As a local business owner, what would be different if councils were able to retain business rates? The most obvious answer is that your business rates make you an even more valuable asset to your council.

By having a financial stake in the success of local businesses, councils will be incentivised to work constructively with you to make sure that local conditions are as favourable as possible to the success of your business—be that a corner shop, construction firm or multinational manufacturing plant. Companies from Jaguar Land Rover to Manchester Metropolitan University to the over 1,000 businesses helped by Calderdale's economic task force can point to the positive impact of working with councils.

As a local business, you play an important role in your local economy. Councils will have even more reason to recognise that when they are able to reinvest business rates in local services - not funnel them back to Whitehall. Your rates will be crucial in helping fund care for older people, supporting vulnerable young people, regenerating your local town centre and much more.

As a council tax payer the rate of council tax you pay will be entirely in the hands of your council, to be spent on your local services. Councils will no longer be able to blame central government when choosing to increase council tax, but will have to make the case to local taxpayers. This would support a much more collaborative, locally driven approach to funding and providing local services.

You would vote to authorise fund-raising propositions, local bonds and so on, so you would have to be persuaded to cast your vote for or against a particular proposal—funding a new bridge, school, or early intervention programme for example.

2. Removing centrally imposed duties

As a local resident you will from time to time want to speak to the council about an issue that is important to you. It might be repairing a pothole, applying for benefits, installing a new road safety sign outside your children's school, or requesting a new bus route. All too often, the council's ability to respond swiftly, innovatively, and in a way that meets local needs is hampered by having to obey rules set out in London.

With independent local government, strong business cases built on value for money would have been subject to stringent local audit control and scrutiny—potentially saving £40 million of public money.

Greater freedoms from central supervision would mean that your council would be much more able to respond to your local circumstances. That in turn means your vote at elections and on local propositions is even more important in determining what, how, when, and where services are provided locally: the balance of power would shift away from Whitehall towards you.

3. Letting local electors decide councils' boundaries, structures and governance models

Local people have a deep and abiding interest in the way their locality is governed. You have only to look at the reams of submissions to the Local Government Boundary Commission for England on the proposed changes to local government in Devon to see the breadth and depth of people's concern.[102]

A sense of place is at the heart of local government, and central government meddles with this at its peril—as can be seen by the results of the Norfolk, Suffolk, and Devon boundary reviews.

Imagine the impact of making a local decision on the electoral system to be used to elect your council or to endorse further devolution to neighbourhoods, communities, councils or parishes—with you deciding, not 'the man from Whitehall'. Your voice suddenly becomes much more important; you make decisions not passively receive them.

As a local resident, independent local government gives you more power to shape your local area: it is your vote that counts, not the opinion of a distant Secretary of State. You know how your local needs are best represented, and this is what should determine councils' boundaries, structures, and governance models.

4. Restating and extending local councils' General Power of Competence

The community budget pilots are already demonstrating what a difference a community budget approach can make to local people. Residents in the pilot areas will benefit from plans to:

integrate health and social care in Tri-borough so that older people and those with chronic conditions are rushed to hospital or into emergency care less frequently.

help complex families in Greater Manchester into work and out of dependency on benefits once the Troubled Families Programme funding runs out.

reduce domestic abuse in Cheshire West and Chester and Essex with perpetrators helped to stop abusing.

improve the skills of people in Essex so that they can increase their earnings and compete more successfully for work.

The opportunities to make changes on this scale should be available to all councils by extending the General Power of Competence so that it is a truly general power, not one hemmed in by over 1,000 statutory duties.

5. Entrenching the independence of local government

As a local resident you would see your council leading the way in promoting a vibrant local economy and ensuring the best outcomes for you and your family and friends. People, having got used to exercising this control over their own affairs, would not want to see these powers default back to Whitehall. The powers and freedoms would be protected in a way that would mean that changes in government would not lead to meddling and micro-management. Local would mean local, and it would stay local.

So local control through autonomous local government must be enshrined in law and properly entrenched if it is to win hearts and minds. People have seen significant nationally-driven changes in public services over recent years. A commitment from Government to a lasting devolution of powers and responsibilities would make a strong case to councils and local people about the permanence of their intentions.

Local electors would see that in our country we trust the people—and the local government that they choose—to run their own affairs, like most other democracies.

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© Parliamentary copyright 2013
Prepared 29 January 2013