Political and Constitutional Reform CommitteeWritten evidence submitted by Cllr Roger Gough, Kent County Council

1. My starting point is that codification is desirable if can be an effective means of reducing central government’s capacity to change the rules of the game unilaterally. At the very least, it should be made considerably harder for government to do so.

2. Declaratory elements of any code have both advantages and limitations. Thus the Preamble of the draft code sets out important and desirable principles (which are also set out on page 1 of the report in the “Rationale for Codification”), emphasising local government’s independent mandate and accountability to its citizens and thus countering tendencies to see local government as a delivery arm of the centre. However, it is worth remembering that the 2007 Concordat included such principles without having any discernible effect on central government behaviour.

3. The critical elements for achieving change are (i) giving local government a seat at the table on matters which affect it, and (ii) creating some machinery that limits central government’s discretion in making unilateral changes.

4. The proposal in Article One (1) for a Joint Committee of the Houses, with local government representation, to review and approve (or not) legislation that affected local government helps achieve both these aims and I strongly support it.

5. I support the proposal, also in Article One (1) for the use of an amended Parliament Act to protect the freedoms of local government. If for any reason the Political and Constitutional Reform Committee were not willing to recommend this, it should at the very least support strong pre-legislative scrutiny (with the proposed Joint Committee playing a key role) as recommended by Lord Bichard in his evidence session with the Committee.

6. I support the proposals in Articles Five and Six, especially with respect to territorial autonomy. There is a case for emphasising here the role of local citizens, perhaps proposing that a mechanism (which would not need to be defined within the Code) should be developed for petitioning for changes.

7. One item which is missing from the draft is a statement of local government’s leadership role with respect to public services in its area. This was referred to in the Concordat. It is also referred to by George Jones and John Stewart in the draft code that they set out in The MJ of 10 March. A clause to this general effect should, I believe, be included in the Code.

8. Such a statement is an important element in ensuring that the Code does not simply freeze and ratify our current over-centralisation. Robust proposals on finance are essential for the same purpose.

9. I am in broad agreement with the draft’s proposals on finance, but have reservations about some of the detailed provisions. Article Seven (1) is, as the Report’s own commentary indicates (p. 12), potentially meaningless as a statement of principle. Arguably it will inevitably be undercut by any equalisation measures.

10. The three criteria set out in the evidence session with Tony Travers and Sir Simon Jenkins (some of which are mentioned in the Code) help give a more robust definition: freedom to tax (ie no capping), 50% or more self-financing and diversity of taxes available to local government.

11. The first of these is self-explanatory and set out in Article Seven (6) of the draft code. The second should be set out as a general principle (ie a high level of self-financing), though I am sceptical of setting out a percentage in the Code itself, not least because of issues of definition of the denominator (for example, as I pointed out in my evidence session to the Committee, it is questionable how far one should view the Delegated Schools Grant as part of upper tier authorities’ spending; if this is removed, the self-financing ratio for an authority like Kent goes up from less than a third to around two-thirds). A detailed review of this issue should perhaps be part of the mandate for the Joint Committee.

12. The Code should make explicit reference to buoyancy and diversity of funding. At the least, it could build on the wording of Article 9 (4) of the European Charter—financial systems “shall be of a sufficiently diversified and buoyant nature to enable them [ie local authorities] to keep pace as far as practically possible with the real evolution of the cost of carrying out their tasks.” I am in favour of assignment of some element of income taxes, but believe that the proportions mentioned in Article Seven (3) are too prescriptive for the purposes of the Code. At the same time, I believe that the draft should make some reference to ensuring that local authorities have income sources linked to business development in their areas, ie supporting in general terms some relocalisation of the business rate.

13. I strongly support the proposals in the draft for an independent body with council representation to oversee equalisation (Article Seven (4)) and for borrowing powers (Article Seven (5)).

14. I agree with much of Article Seven (7), but believe that a three year lock-in of funding, even when there is a change of government, is unrealistic. The assessment (p. 13) acknowledges this to some degree, speaking of some form of “emergency provisions”. I think this needs to be more explicit, but at the same time the Code could be stronger in leaning against changes to in-year funding, which is much less defensible

15. I am in broad agreement with those Articles in the Code on which I have made no comment.

May 2011

Prepared 28th January 2013