The sad state of local government in England
Bravo, John Harris (The national calamity you won’t see on the front pages, Journal, 10 June). Only Harris, Amelia Gentleman, Simon Jenkins and the Guardian care about the decimation of local government.
Ask a friend what local government does and you will be met with blank stares or murmurings about too many potholes, no money for Auntie Mary’s care or that the library has closed. That is the reality of austerity, but it also reflects the woeful efforts of local government leaders to make the case nationally for local services.
As Harris vividly illustrates, local government leaders continue to simply complain about funding in their own areas. The reality is that people in Bristol are not interested in Torbay’s problems, education professionals are not interested in potholes, and Labour councillors’ areas are not interested in their Tory colleagues’ needs; and vice versa. Local government divides itself, so it is easily ruled by the centre. Local government leaders must improve their national PR and explain to the public what is happening before it is too late.
Director of education, Cornwall county council 1994-2002
John Harris is spot-on in characterising the gradual sacrifice of local government on the altar of austerity as a national calamity. However, his suggestion that financial independence for councils could be based on a “decent share of income tax” is a non sequitur, for there will be no independence to be had there, nor any local accountability. Far better to reform council tax by updating its ludicrously outdated 1991 value base and recalibrating valuation bands to
address the deeply regressive nature of this tax. The government will never allow fully autonomous local taxation and I suspect limitation of increases is here to stay but at least such reforms would provide a greater measure of fairness and independence.
Re John Harris’s article, Whitehall clings to centralised power for reasons deeper than the mendacity of Tory austerity. England is the only part of the union now run by the UK government. Question Whitehall’s centralism and you question the very hold of the UK government over England. England needs devolution – not least to give its poorest communities the relative financial protection that the Barnett formula gives to Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland – but that will only be successfully designed within England, by English local authorities, by English civic society and by English MPs.
Prof John Denham
Director, Centre for English Identity and Politics, University of Winchester