Not a blizzard, just Pickles’ latest battlefield

My first thought, when I glimpsed it in a CLG departmental press notice, was that there had been a Conservative power grab within the Coalition. What looked for all the world like a snow report map suggested that Eric Pickles had snatched the Met Office away from the Lib Dems’ Vince Cable at the Department for Business Innovation and Skills, and, having sorted out local government, was turning to the weather and climate control.

The truth, sadly, proved more mundane. It was simply the Secretary of State’s latest move in his battle to bully local authorities into freezing or cutting their council tax next year, and the snowflake-covered map recorded the more than 300 who have so far apparently agreed to do so – each crystalline flake ingeniously representing a virtuous ‘freezer’.

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I really feel I must be getting soft in my old age. I have spent much of my academic life explaining to students, councillors, overseas visitors, and indeed anyone who’ll listen, just how centrally controlled and ministerially dominated our local government system is. Yet I’ve still found myself surprised at the lengths to which ministers have gone, at the duplicity of their arguments, and the intemperance of the language they’ve used, in this particular campaign over what, after all, was supposed to be one of those offers you could refuse.

I blogged about it back in January, during Pickles’ early attacks on councillors, when he tried to argue that it was not only their political responsibility but their moral duty to vote against a council tax freeze – even if, in doing so, they would be consciously leaving their council facing a funding shortfall and even higher tax increases in future years.

Ministers then, in quick succession: (1) claimed that the Government’s offer of funding for a 2012-13 freeze had been deliberately designed to limit the growth in councils’ tax bases – though no mention of it was made at the time; (2) confused this new position by suggesting that ongoing funding for the 2011-12 freeze might be protected beyond the current spending review period; and (3) anticipated a possible rule change, whereby councils raising their tax would not be permitted to keep their new tax base next year.

At the same time, having attacked the integrity of councillors, Ministers switched to questioning the professionalism of officers. Chief finance officers who advised their members to put up council tax were likely to be doing so with the intention of “filling the town hall coffers”, and risked involving themselves in politics. Now, through CLG press notices, we’re being treated to almost daily bulletins not merely reporting, but applauding, each new council of any political complexion that signals its intention to freeze or cut its tax.

Part of the reason for recalling these developments is that they coincided neatly with the publication of an interesting report – 2012 Reform Scorecard – from the centre-right think tank, Reform.

The report is an assessment of the achievements of the Coalition Government’s public service reform agenda during 2011, and the scorecard takes the form of an almost CPA-style assessment of the progress made, or not made, by each of the relevant Whitehall departments. “Real reform” has been achieved, the report reckons, by Justice – “has made the best arguments for competition of any department, and translated them into action”; Defence, with the Levene Review – the shining example of Civil Service reform across government”; and, perhaps surprisingly, by the Home Office, with its policing reforms.

At the other end of the spectrum are the departments judged to be “Going Backwards”: Health – “The Government’s original reforms were flawed and 2011’s retreat from reform has made them worse”; Higher Education – “greater freedom to set tuition fees has been overshadowed by market distortions and tighter restrictions on universities”; and HM Treasury – “ring-fencing of the health and schools budgets has put a handbrake on reform and efficiency in those sectors”.

In between these extremes are the departments assigned to a category initially proposed for the CPA, but later abandoned – “Coasting”.  One such department, by the process of elimination, is CLG. The Reform report has both positive and negative things to say under each of its main headings – Accountability, Flexibility, and Value for Money – but its overall assessment can be summarised as follows (pp.41-42):

“The Government’s rhetoric [on localism] has sent an important signal that it is willing to give councils the flexibility they need to deliver services as they see fit”.

Yet this ostensible commitment to localism has been repeatedly undermined by attempts to exercise power over local issues from Whitehall. The Communities and Local Government Secretary has repeatedly called upon councils to maintain weekly bin collections, terming them ‘a basic right’ and creating a £250 million fund to support weekly collections. The Prime Minister, David Cameron, has circumvented local responsibility on the issues of adoption and problem families. In November, the Chancellor announced the extension of a freeze on council tax until 2012-13, mitigated by £675 million worth of funding support for councils to maintain levels of council tax.

“These attempts to impose central controls and pressure over essentially local issues subvert local responsibility and flexibility and firmly enforce Ministerial and bureaucratic responsibility in the place of local democratic accountability” (emphasis added).

And that, of course, was written before Ministers had even started implementing their ‘voluntary’ freeze.

Chris Game

Chris is a Visiting Lecturer at INLOGOV interested in the politics of local government; local elections, electoral reform and other electoral behaviour; party politics; political  leadership and management; member-officer relations; central-local relations; use of consumer and opinion research in local government; the modernisation agenda and the implementation of executive local government.

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