Opinion: Cameron’s vision for local government is bleak

Last week’s Local Government Association conference was addressed on its final day by three representatives from Westminster who’d made the journey northwards to Harrogate to face the serried ranks of senior local government councillors and officers.

The Lib Dems were represented by Vince Cable MP, given an early morning slot that not everyone got to. He was warmly received by all those who were there, in any case, which may represent that it was just the Lib Dem LGA group present. His speech covered his history as a councillor himself in the early 1970s when local government had greater discretion – but when many of his colleagues had ended up in prison as a result of decisions they had taken. He covered how localism has come to mean different things to the different parties and how we are all proponents of localism, but mean different things by it:

There is the ‘localism’ which involves strengthening the autonomy of schools, colleges and other bodies by stripping local authorities of their role. There is the localism which really means individual choice at the expense of local community choice. There is localism in the form of regional devolution; devolution to local authorities; and devolution within local authorities. I want to talk about localism in the traditional sense of decentralisation to local communities and their elected councils: not just because I am talking to you but because I believe it is right, and an urgent priority. That is what my party means by localism though I am not sure it is true of our opponents.

Cllr Tim Ball has the full text of Vince Cable’s speech; and Iain Browne of Birkdale Focus gives an account and his reaction to it.

Labour sent their new-in-post Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government to the antepenultimate slot of the day. Twitter’s CllrTim thought the Tory and Lib Dem groups had been warned to stay away, and indeed the hall was pitifully empty by the time he took to the podium. I’m sure that rather than any organised boycott, delegates were aware the minister had been in post scant minutes, would have little new to say, and were aware of how hellish it is to leave Harrogate in peak traffic.

As it was, John Denham gave a good round up of the current awful state of Government policy in regards to local government. He even defended the Comprehensive Area Assessment, Labour’s latest wheeze for Whitehall to inspect Town Halls and bestow them with red and green flags (red flags being bad, much to the chagrin of some of my Labour colleagues in Nottingham). Earlier in the day, Vince Cable had promised to remove almost all of the inspection process and save some £800m.

Finally David Cameron, who bounded onto the stage just before lunch to a packed auditorium. The Conservatives control the LGA as they have the majority of the nation’s councillors, and so they were there in number. Contrasted with the other speakers, Cameron has never been a councillor himself. But he has spoken to the LGA three times, and he knows what buttons to press.

Many of the promises he made to councillors were welcome, if they can be believed. Like Vince, he promised less regulation and fewer inspections; an end to the Standards Board and an end to top-down reorganisations.

But the quid pro quo of the greater powers and the higher responsibilities was that a Tory government will give no more money to councils. Any further improvement or achievement will have to come as a zero sum game. His model for this was the supermarkets, and he mocked Labour’s view that cuts in expenditure necessarily lead to cuts in services by calling on the slogans our supermarkets use:

“Good food costs more at Sainsbury’s”.

“At Tesco every little bit doesn’t so much as help – in fact it’d be a 10 per cent cut in the quality of the food”.

Asda wouldn’t boast “permanently low prices – but “permanently more and more cuts in quality and service”.

But to use the supermarkets as the model for local government in the future is a deeply depressing outlook. Those low prices come from an almost monopolistic market position that local councils can never have and from an abysmal, abusive relationship with suppliers that is not a model for anyone, least of all local authorities. I well remember my student and summer work in supermarkets. They were not not the decentralised beacons of autonomy Cameron earlier said he wanted for local government: I can remember night shifts restocking shelves based on a map from head office that showed precisely what went where and hanging advertising banners from the roof based on diagrams from HQ. Even our interactions with customers on the checkouts were precisely defined: opening all conversations with references to loyalty cards with the threat of mystery shoppers to enforce it; the tills monitoring our transaction speeds and getting operators to tap in data on the shopfloor – QUEUE LENGTH??

And the spectre of less money is one that will resonate with those who were in local government during the last Conservative government. My council chamber frequently resonates with the sound of waxing lyrical along themes of schools starved of capital investment, where boilers failed and roofs leaked; of roads in states of disrepair for decades; of the one investment in transport for an entire year, a single set of traffic lights (long since removed as pedestrianisation swept in).

Dave’s final point however was an interesting exercise in transparency pinned around a phrase of “Google Government”. His idea was that councils should make available everything they spend their money on, after a model of Windsor and Maidenhead who make public every item of expenditure over £500. (Mind you, I have looked at their website, and can’t immediately see where they are doing this). The idea is that bloggers, opposition activists and councillors can more immediately hold councils for account for the spending decisions they make – and even that providers can undercut each other in a savage, dog-eat-dog frenzy that leads to local government paying you to empty your bin.

This has begun to begin in Nottingham and there are already local bloggers – some staffed by disgruntled ex-council employees who know where the bodies are buried – who are fast becoming thorns in the sides of the City Council. One of their key tools is FOI legislation, and the handy portal What Do They Know. So maybe Google governance has traction. But in £500 increments? Nottingham City Council now spends over £1bn a year – who has the stones to inspect up to two million expenditure entries? And how are we to meaningfully publish that? And ultimately – is it the sort of top-down imposition that Cameron opened his speech by saying he would abolish?

Alex Foster is a councillor in Nottingham City and attended the LGA conference for the first time last week.

Daily View 2×2: 28th May 2009

2 big stories

LDV’s daily glimpse into the world of media and views.  Our biggest story today has already made the news here at LDV, but it’s too good for us not to trail again: Nick Clegg has launched a campaign for 100 days of proper discussion about real reform.

It’s the front of the Guardian: the main story; the article by Clegg himself, and the version of the story where Clegg mocks Cameron’s pathetic attempts at real reform.

There’s been a wide variety of responses to the article here and in the comments over at the Guardian – ranging from praise to  ”aim lower – you might get something done” – but my favourite response so far has been the approving words from Felix Cohen – he of the (very strongly worded) openlettertothelibdems.net.

While we’re on the subject of reform, don’t miss my second pick – Matthew Norman in the Independent calling for a written constitution.  He’s not exactly complimentary about the Lib Dems but he reserves his truly scathing commentary for the other two main parties. So that’s alright, then.

2 must-read blog posts

There were some good instapundit reactions to the Clegg news including:

But for my two picks, I’m choosing Mark “Star of Radio 4’s More or Less” Thompson’s latest revisiting of the correlation between safety of seat an MP’s seat and the likelihood of him or her abusing expenses. After all, the first outing of this just ten days ago is arguably what has boosted electoral and constitutional reform so high up the agenda.

And my second pick, an unhappy Jo Christie-Smith is narked at unkempt Boris’s unkept promises – South-East Londoners still can’t use their Oyster cards on trains.

Coming up later today

On Lib Dem Voice today – we’lll have news of UKIP’s tenuous grip on reality – and I’ll be donning my Bursar’s hat and  publishing LDV’s accounts for members of our forum to investigate.

Cometh the hour, cometh PR?

It’s quiet in LDV Towers this afternoon as all the responsible editors have day job responsibilties.

We can always tell when we’re not talking about something our readers want to have their say on, because you kindly have your say on it anyway on whatever was the top post.

And today’s topic is clearly Call Me Dave’s speech on parliamentary reform, in which he sets out a series of Lib Dem policy proposals and pretends they’re new.  There’s no zealot like a recently converted zealot, but hang on a minute, Dave?  Power to the people?  Small government?  All of that is Liberalism 101, the first chapter from An Intelligent Person’s Guide to Liberalism.  We’ve long held it dear, and we simply don’t believe you when we hear it from your lips.

As Lynne Featherstone said earlier today on her blog

There is stuff that Cameron’s said which I agree with – as you would expect given that many of the ‘ideas’ he puts forward in today’s Guardian are long-standing Liberal Democrat policies! Fixed-term parliaments, reducing of the power of the executive, cutting the number of MPs, devolving power to councils and empowering individuals. Transparency and accountability – definitely. Shame Cameron has had to be dragged kicking and screaming on these. But – to be fair – at least he is going out there.

Meral Ece went one step further and noted that Cameron’s words are not all that dissimilar from Nick Clegg’s speech to conference last Spring:

“They say it takes a village to raise a child. It will take a whole nation to raise us out of these turbulent times. That’s why, if we’re to build a better tomorrow.It must be driven by a different kind of politics. Winner-takes-all politics will only ever deliver boom-and-bust economics. So, to make sure growth is driven in every part of Britain, not just London: we will devolve power. To stop vested interests from controlling the economy and holding back reform: we will bring an end to big donations. And to create an open balanced politics that includes, engages and involves every citizen of this great country: we will secure fair votes for all. And you know what else? We need to give people back their rights. We need to stop people being bullied and chivvied by a state that invades every corner of our private lives, putting our DNA on a database, fingerprinting our children at school and losing their private data on commuter trains. Our freedom is a hard-won inheritance: Liberal Democrats will get it back”

But much of the comment on the LD blogosphere this morning is reserved for David Cameron’s outright rejection of PR on the basis of a straw man paragraph at the end of his speech:

[…] a Conservative Government will not consider introducing proportional representation.

The principle underlying all the political reforms a new Conservative Government would make is the progressive principle of redistributing power and control – from the powerful to the powerless.

PR would actually move us in the opposite direction, which is why I’m so surprised it’s still on the wish-list of progressive reformers.

Proportional representation takes power away from the man and woman in the street and hands it to the political elites.

And you m’colleagues have been quick to put him right on where’s he’s wrong with this.

Millennium recaps why we’re here – from Mark Reckon’s analysis that “safe seats equals sleazy seats.”

Jennie Rigg joined Millennium and explained it’s not any old PR we need – not the bad PR we have at European elections, or the messy AV+ Scottish systems, but genuine single transferable vote in multi member constituencies.  (Oh – and David Cameron didn’t answer Jennie’s question about a return to traditional British multi-member constituencies.)

When the revolution comes, my placard will read “STV MMC FTW!”