The Council Tax Freeze, Part 3: Who’ll Be On This Year’s Roll of Shame?

Chris Game

East Cambridgeshire, East Hampshire, East Northamptonshire, South Hams, South Ribble, West Devon – anything you reckon they might have in common, apart from ‘compass point’ names that for most of us require translation to make much sense: Ely/Newmarket, Petersfield/Alton, Rushden, Totnes, Leyland, Tavistock/Okehampton, if you were wondering.

No? OK, let’s add Surrey, Cambridgeshire, Huntingdonshire, Epsom and Ewell, Tonbridge & Malling, Tunbridge Wells.

Top of the DCLG indices for least deprived local authorities? Nice try, but no cigar.  No Labour-controlled London or metropolitan boroughs? Getting warmer. Conservative heartlands?  Almost there. Ministers’ favourite councils? Oh dear – back to freezing, but freezing’s the clue as well as the direction of travel.

Far from being Pickles’ pets, they were on what the Daily Telegraph took to calling the ‘Roll of Shame’ – the 35 councils that decided, in the face of frequently fierce ministerial pressure, not to freeze their 2012/13 council tax rates

They did the math, and calculated that the offer of one-off central funding equivalent to a 2.5% tax increase, but creating a potential budget gap from 2013/14, was not in their residents’ longer-term interests. So they chose to set their own budgets – insofar as these things are possible nowadays – and raise their tax rates by between 2.5 and 3.5%, the latter being the point at which a referendum and its attendant costs would have been triggered.

Unlike the previous year, when the Government’s financial incentive ran for the four-year funding term and all councils took the money and froze, this time one in ten rebelled – and the biggest single party group were, yes, 16 Conservative councils, for many of whom featuring on a naughty list must have been an  interestingly novel experience.

There were, hardly surprisingly, nearly as many Labour councils – though again not those that might have been at the top of most people’s guess lists: no London boroughs, only St Helens among the mets, Leicester, Nottingham, Darlington, Stoke, Preston, Luton, York. But, with the possible exception of the three Teesside unitaries (minus Hartlepool) – Middlesbrough, Redcar & Cleveland, and Stockton-on-Tees – this was no more a co-ordinated, politically driven anti-Government protest than among the Conservative rebels.

Rather, it was councils and their finance officers doing the sums and concluding that this tax freeze offer simply did not constitute for many authorities the advantageous deal that Ministers had tried to claim – before switching their sales pitch to blustering to councillors about how freezing was a moral duty, regardless of its costs.

One of the things that will make the coming few months interesting, at least for detached observers, is that the terms of the Government’s 2013/14 tax freeze offer, announced this week, have changed once again, and can be headlined in one of those ‘Good news, bad news’ games.

This year freezers will receive a grant equivalent to just a 1% tax rise, instead of 2.5% (bad news); but they will also get an extra year’s baseline funding, “to ensure that there is no cliff-edge in funding in 2014/15” – apart, that is, from any already incurred this year (good news); but the referendum threshold comes down from a 3.5% rise to one of just 2% (bad news) – or is it?

Two observations occur to me. The first is to recall all those statements when the Conservatives were in opposition about how damaging capping was, because it took the power of decision about local spending and taxation out of the hands of local voters and handed it to remote central bureaucracies.  As we enter the third year of tax freezing by ministerial arm-twisting, it’s really hard to see it as anything other than local budget setting by remote central bureaucracy.

Second, there must be a likelihood of at least a few councils seriously considering the referendum option, and making the case for restricting the speed and severity of service cuts in the general community interest – except that there seem to be so many rather substantial details still to be determined about how these referendums would actually work: the form of ballot; wording of the question(s); timing; all- or part-postal, or maybe included with annual tax demand notices; restriction to council tax payers – to name but a few.

A further non-detail, in addition of course to the cost of the whole thing, is the very principle of having a one-off referendum on a single year’s proposed tax increase, which must have the effect of making long-term planning even more difficult than it is already.

There was a question in the DCLG’s council tax referendum consultation back in 2010 that asked specifically about whether, with the abolition of capping, there was any reason why authorities should be required to calculate a budget requirement each year. The possibility of being able to frame a referendum around a medium-term financial plan, including staged council tax increases over a number of years, might be a more attractive proposition to some councils, and it’s a topic that would seem worth revisiting.

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.

The Barnet Graph of Doom – not new or classified, but definitely sensitive

Chris Game

A recent SocietyGuardian article on the impact of demographic change on local authority service provision by David Brindle, the paper’s Public Services Editor, produced considerable social media comment, but not apparently any actual sighting of the item that kicked the article off: the so-called Barnet Graph of Doom. Time, therefore, for an unveiling, and some demystification.

 Brindle introduced the BGoD as:

 “a PowerPoint slide, showing that within 20 years, unless things change dramatically, [Barnet Council] will be unable to provide any services except adult social care and children’s services. No libraries, no parks, no leisure centres – not even bin collections.”

Dramatic enough in itself, you’d have thought, but Brindle ratchets up the drama by seeming to imply that the Doom Graph is both new and so sensitive as to be virtually classified:

“The slide … now features regularly in presentations by Sir Bob Kerslake, permanent secretary at the [DCLG] … Whether he has dared to show it to communities secretary Eric Pickles, defender of the Englishman’s inalienable right to a weekly bin round, is unknown.”

In fact, speculation is unnecessary, as the slide in question has been in the public domain for nearly eight months now. It comes from a three minute video presented by Councillor Dan Thomas, Cabinet Member for Resources, as part of one of Barnet Council’s regular budget consultation exercises. The presentation is on both the Council’s website and YouTube, and therefore as available to the minister as it is to Barnet residents, you and me. 

Whether Sir Bob makes use of more than the single slide Brindle doesn’t say. But, unable to break a lecturer’s lifelong weakness for promising visual aids, I certainly would have done – in fact, will do so here – because I reckon the video, though brief, provides a better introduction to the causes and scale of the challenges facing all major local authorities over the coming few years than many have managed.

The video starts from the Government’s October 2010 Spending Review plans to cut total public spending by £81 billion by 2014-15, but not equally across the board. With the NHS budget (nearly 13% of the total) protected and Overseas Aid, though small, increased, the hit taken by the unprotected DCLG, and as a result by local government, would be over 28%.

The video starts from the Government’s October 2010 Spending Review plans to cut total public spending by £81 billion by 2014-15, but not equally across the board. With the NHS budget (nearly 13% of the total) protected and Overseas Aid, though small, increased, the hit taken by the unprotected DCLG, and as a result by local government, would be over 28%.

For Barnet, other things too will change.  With a population of 350,000, the borough is already the largest in London and faces further growth at both ends of the age spectrum – 17% more 5-to-9s and 25% more over-90s by 2016. There is substantial development in the west of the borough, currently requiring more reception places and in future more secondary school places. Which brings us to the Graph of Doom.

Barnet Council estimates that over the four-year Spending Review period it will lose roughly 30% of its income, requiring matching reductions in spending. The bar chart plots the predicted spending on adult social care and on children’s and family services over the coming decade – showing that, without significant changes in the way these services are provided and/or in councils’ funding, the increasing numbers it will be supporting mean that by 2022-23 it would be providing only social services, there being no money left for anything else.  Not classified information, then, but definitely sensitive.

The graph’s original purpose, it should be remembered, was to prompt Barnet residents to think about what their spending priorities would be for the immediate and medium-term future – and, no doubt, to concentrate the minds of members and officers. It was not the product of a sophisticated modelling exercise and, as its authors would surely acknowledge, it has obvious limitations.

It takes no account, for example, of future economies and efficiency savings or of increased income stemming from planned regeneration, particularly of the Cricklewood/West Hendon/Brent Cross area. On the other hand, though, it seems to assume a more or less neutral 2013 Spending Review, rather than another round of austerity measures, as currently looks more likely. In short, though not all-inclusive, its depiction of a calculably approaching funding crisis is more than ‘real’ enough to warrant serious attention from all who should be concerned.

The new Coalition Government seemed concerned – when one of its first actions was to ask Andrew Dilnot, a former Director of the Institute for Fiscal Studies, to chair a three-person Commission on the funding of elderly care and report back, with recommendations, within the year.

The Commissioners were emphatically concerned. They found the current funding system barely comprehensible, frequently unfair, and urgently in need of reform. Their key recommendations proposed:

•   capping individuals’ lifetime contributions towards their social care costs – at around   £35,000 – after which they should be eligible for full state support;

•   increasing the means-tested threshold, above which people are liable for their full care costs, from £23,250 to £100,000;

•   limiting liability for the costs of accommodation and food paid by people in a care home to £10,000 p.a.

The Commission’s full set of proposals, it estimated, would increased public spending by £1.7 billion p.a., rising to £3.6 billion by 2025 – equivalent to 0.25% of the total: “a price well worth paying” to remove people’s fear of having to sell their homes and spend almost all their wealth on care.

Ministers, particularly those in the vicinity of the Treasury, then became concerned to the point of agitation – at the capping proposal and the overall price tag. Dilnot was welcomed, but, as Health Secretary Andrew Lansley put it, as “a basis for engagement” – to be followed by more consultation, a delayed White Paper, and legislation “at the earliest opportunity thereafter”.

Whereupon the LGA became volubly concerned, with good reason. In an unusual cross-party initiative, Chairman Sir Merrick Cockell wrote to the three main party leaders on behalf of all LGA political groups, pointing out that social care already takes up more than 40% of council budgets, that demographic pressures alone will add £2 billion p.a. to these costs by 2015, and calling on Ministers to work urgently with local government in introducing radical Dilnot-type reforms.

Since then, the White Paper has been further postponed and will not address the funding issue anyway, the Queen’s Speech contained no relevant legislation whatever … and Doom gets ever closer.

Chris Game 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.

Standards Codes: A Case of Motherhood and Apple Pie

Philip Whiteman

Whilst giving a lecture to a group of councillors at a summer school last year, I explained how the Localism Bill could result in some authorities abandoning their codes of conduct for reasons of despair with the standards regime.  The response from councillors was enthusiastic and comments included ‘expensive, time consuming and irrelevant’.  Some predictably expressed the view that the ultimate judgement of what constituted poor behaviour would be subject to the ballot box.

Walk on stage, Baron Bichard of Nailsworth who took a very different view when introducing an amendment to the Bill in order to save the code.

“At a time when the public’s trust in politicians is at a low ebb, it is important that all public bodies have explicit standards of conduct, which make transparent how they will carry out their business and provide benchmarks against which they can be held to account.”

Bichard’s intervention and proposal was timely albeit rather late during the Bill’s progress through Parliament.  Without his amendment, local government would have made a backward step of forty years.  Quite why the government objected to the code is unclear but they clearly had a very short memory span.   The code was introduced following the Poulson corruption scandal of the early 1970s and eventually became a statutory requirement. It is true that the code did not rule out further scandals whether they be Donnygate, Shirley Porter orWalsall, but it has given existing councillors a handle on what is acceptable or unacceptable behaviour – a situation further reinforced through the standards regime and most recently, the inclusion of the Nolan Principles into statute.

The Act is quite original in that it is probably the first piece of legislation that lists the Nolan principles, which must be adopted by each authority. However, the rest of the code has to be determined by each authority in the spirit of localism.  This is particularly problematic for authorities not willing to ever make a decision without receiving central government guidance, many of whom will have been waiting for some months by now.

So, from stage left and four months after the Act becoming statute, welcome the Local Government Association and Department for Communities and Local Government along with their new illustrative codes of conduct. Both of their anticipated documents arrived during April and within a week of each other.  This may be coincidental but it did rather resemble a rather unsightly race of one-upmanship or desperation between the two institutions.

Unfortunately, neither code is likely to generate much excitement and seem to be rather ‘motherhood and apple pie’ and lacking in substance – probably a result of disagreement and a rush to publish.

When comparing both documents, one could easily question whether the institutions are addressing the same legislation.  Just taking three examples:

  • CLG’s illustrative code fails to list the Nolan principles (remember that was a requirement under the Act).
  • The LGA acknowledges that others should be treated with respect but the CLG code does not.
  • CLG incorporates narrative on the new Disclosable Pecuniary Interest – but this totally ignored within by the LGA

And the list could go on.

Monitoring Officers and their councillors have gained a tremendous experience over the past few years from the work in developing standards codes.  They will know what works and what does not.  True, existing codes will need to change and reflect the legislative requirements but my recommendation is that they reconsider the own existing codes rather than unquestioningly adopt the vagaries of either the CLG or LGA models.

Returning to my discussion with the group of councillors and their opposition to codes of conduct.   When challenged on how they would determine a breach of standards and how they would tackle an errant councillor, there was quick realisation that a code of conduct provides an essential framework for assessing poor standards and breaches of acceptable behaviour.  Unfortunately, I think those councillors will be sorely disappointed with the LGA or CLG examples.

Philip Whiteman is a Lecturer at the Institute of Local Government Studies.  He has research interests in the impact of central government and regulators on the role, service delivery and performance of local government and other local bodies.  He is currently looking at developing a case for researching how guidance is an important instrument for steering local government over and above legislative instruments.  He is also Editor of the journal Local Government Studies.

If Ministers want us to vote for mayors, why make it so hard?

Chris Game

Even allowing for all the undecideds and the “ooh-I’ve-not-heard-anything-about-it”s, opinion polls suggest that several, perhaps even most, of the ten referendums on May 3rd could produce Yes majorities for elected mayors. None suggest, though, that there isn’t everything still to play for. Why, then, are Government Ministers, who claim to want this potentially momentous change, making life so difficult for the Yes campaigners?

Two issues come up at every mayoral meeting: What additional ‘hard’ powers would a mayor in my city have? and How do we kick out one who’s no good? With the Localism Act offering little help, and Ministers even less, this blog attempts to provide some at least partial answers.

Powers were intended to be easy. In the original Bill, undefined additional powers – transferred ‘local public service functions’ – would go to mayoral authorities only. They were the bribe to get us to vote for the mayors that only false consciousness had prevented us realising we really wanted all along.

But the Lords crucially amended this bit of the Bill, enabling functions to be transferred to any ‘permitted authority’, provided the transfer “would promote economic development … or increase local accountability”.  The mayoral bribe had gone – replaced only by a thinly disguised code.

December’s Cabinet Office prospectus, Unlocking Growth in Cities, stated that cities wanting significant new powers and funding would “need to demonstrate strong, visible and accountable leadership and effective decision-making structures” –universally interpreted as having an elected mayor.

This document launched the Government’s policy of ‘City Deals’ – bespoke packages of new powers, projects and funding sources, negotiated with the leaders of individual cities, in exchange for an agreement to work with the Government, the private sector and other agencies to unlock these cities’ “full growth potential”.

It sounds encouragingly localist – until you realise the Catch-22.  Ministers want to negotiate individual city deals with elected mayors; they can’t say what any specific deal will comprise without knowing who they’ll be negotiating with; but voters, unless they know the likely content of their deal, are much less likely to opt for mayors.

Though inconvenient, this logic might just be acceptable, had Ministers themselves not completely ignored it in publicising early deals with one city still to elect a mayor and another outspokenly opposed to the whole idea.

Ministers could yet decide, as was hinted at before the Budget, to reveal some meaningful detail about the discussions already held with the leaderships of other referendum cities, but it now seems unlikely.  Yes campaigners, therefore, must make the most of the Liverpool and Greater Manchester deals that we do know about – by no means, as it turns out, too discouraging a task.

Liverpool’s city deal was announced on February 7th – the same day as the Labour Council, bypassing its electorate, took the decision itself to have an elected mayor who, once elected on May 3rd, would lead its implementation.

All involved insisted, however, that the deal was not dependent on the city having a mayor – which means that any city whose electors have actually voted for a mayor will surely expect to negotiate a deal worth proportionately at least as much as Liverpool’s.

Liverpool Council’s website headlines the deal’s additional economic development money as initially £130 million – “including £75 million of new money from government” – with the potential to grow to between £500 million and £1 billion.

Other goodies include: an Environmental Technology Zone, with the resulting growth in business rate income going to the Local Enterprise Partnership (LEP) and five Mayoral Development Zones; a Mayoral Investment Board to oversee the city’s economic and housing strategy; and a Secondary School Investment Plan to build 12 new secondary schools.

Sceptics will, entirely reasonably, note the big questions here barely even addressed. How much of all of this is genuinely new money, as opposed to money that would have come to Liverpool anyway from existing or abolished funding sources?  How much of this city deal has to be shared with the city-region LEP? How much freedom of action will the Mayor have to do things that Ministers don’t like? And, of course, the perennial question of additional revenue-raising, as opposed to capital-raising, powers.

However, even to Kenny Dalglish and Liverpool FC, £500 million-plus is hardly loose change. Moreover, most of what relatively little criticism there has been of the package came, significantly, only after the announcement of Greater Manchester’s deal, whose ‘earn back’ tax provision – the first allowing local government to take directly a slice of national taxes – was rightly acknowledged as a genuinely ground-breaking policy innovation.

Importantly, Manchester’s is not a deal with the City Council, but with the Greater Manchester Combined Authority (GMCA) – the strategic authority for all ten Manchester boroughs, whose statutory city region status is clearly accepted by Ministers as having at least the strength and accountability of a city mayor.

Under the deal the GMCA will invest £1.2 billion in infrastructure to promote economic growth, and – the headline bit – will be able to earn back up to £30 million of the extra growth-generated tax revenues to reinvest in a revolving infrastructure fund, in which the money is returned on a payment-by-results basis.

The whole deal aims to create and protect a total of over 6,000 jobs, with other provisions – including devolution of the Northern Rail franchise, 6,000 more apprenticeships, a low carbon hub, and up to 7,000 new homes through a Housing Investment Board – detailed on the DCLG website.

Its total potential impact on the city and regional economy is huge, and, exceptional as the GMCA may be, this publicised deal has to be seen as a massive precedent, and, surely, a major addition to the Yes campaigners’ armoury.

Removal of mayors should also have been settled by now. In its Impact Assessment in January 2011, the Government asserted (p.9) that, if mayors were going to exercise additional powers and freedoms, the accountability regime should include a recall mechanism – to be introduced “at a later date … having considered the issue alongside proposals for recall for other public officials.”

It would have been useful had Ministers reminded voters of this pledge and given some vague hint of when the “later date” might arrive. Still, it remains Government policy, and the answer, therefore, to the question: “If we’re going to directly elect a mayor, how can we directly unelect a rubbish one?” is that, by the time the possibility arises, some recall mechanism should, as promised, be in place.

But what kind of mechanism?  The Warwick Commission Report on Elected Mayors seems to suggest that “an appropriate recall process”, enabling the removal of a mayor “in extremis”, might be one exercised through a no confidence vote by the full council (pp. 10,34). Which is not dissimilar to the Government’s current attempt to introduce a recall mechanism for MPs, controlled by other MPs, rather than by voters – and rapidly unravelling as a consequence, which probably explains why Ministers are keeping so stum about recall for mayors.

In what is supposed to be a major extension of direct democracy, “an appropriate recall process” would seem logically to be one in which voters are the key players. A set percentage of a disgruntled electorate sign a petition, and thereby trigger a recall vote in which those same electors are asked if they want their mayor to be recalled, with a Yes vote triggering in turn a by-election.

Finally, there is the in extremis issue. The Recall of Elected Representatives Bill – the one introduced, regrettably, not by the Government, but as a Private Member’s Bill by Conservative MP, Zac Goldsmith – proposes that recall should kick into action not in extremis, but in any circumstances in which representatives lose the confidence of their electorate: if, say, they’ve acted financially dishonestly or disreputably, intentionally misled the body to which they’ve been elected, broken promises made in an election address, or behaved in a way likely to bring their office into disrepute (Clause 1(2b).

It’s almost certainly not what Ministers have in mind, but I bet it wouldn’t half boost the Yes vote on May 3rd and maybe even the turnout.

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.

Returning to the Back Benches

Councillor David Smith

After eleven years as leader of Lichfield District Council it was with some feelings of uncertainty that I embarked on my role as a back bencher.  As Leader I had reluctantly been obliged to introduce the system of cabinet with overview and scrutiny panels and I still hold the view that this system moves members from community activists to being disenfranchised observers.

It is therefore interesting to see that as part of the Localism Act councils are now starting changes to new forms of delivery that, far from going back to the old slow and cumbersome committee system, are developing new approaches based on cabinet committees.

I understand that Kent County Council are amongst the trail blazers out of the large authorities but I am told talking to the leader of Tandridge District Council, which was not required to change to the cabinet system, that they have themselves developed a highly successful Leader and committee system that I would commend, certainly to districts.

It may be said that idle hands are a source for trouble but with the massive talent that we have amongst our councillors they are surely wasted in overviewing the decisions of others. It can also be said that councillors are probably closest to the ground roots of our communities and in their new changed role from community representative to community leader they can now respond to that challenge.

The Localism Act has essentially changed the way we do business.  Councils like to be told what to do by national Government so that it gives them something to push against.  By removing these constraints members can look again at what drove them to become councillors and how they wish to develop their changed role. Developing the LDF in many councils is going to present a major challenge that will push the back bench leadership role to its limits. The balance between the “needs analysis” of what a council will need to deliver and the “not in my back yard” situation will cause significant stresses.

All councillors must also come to terms with the need to actively participate in the planning system, no one will be able to say  “I don’t do planning.”  The need for all members to fully understand and be involved in early planning discussions on major applications is new territory for both members and  officers and in some cases opens the door of the planning department to what has been seen in the past as a forbidden area.

Indeed in some councils (not Lichfield) I was amazed to discover that planning officers were barred from speaking to members about applications.  I am sure the Localism Act will develop a new openness that will bring about a refreshing change to many areas within our councils.

Since giving up my role as Leader I have completely refreshed the relationship I have with my electorate.    My rolling case load of around eight has not changed but I now am able to spend more time in the local community.

The Localism Act gave me the opportunity to work with residents to prepare a 10 year strategy for the village I represent and on the advice of Greg Clark we submitted it for Government funding.  No one was more surprised than me to find we have been granted £20,000 to progress the plan.

Back in June of last year we developed a wish list for our community that developed into ten challenges and from this a group of 17 residents came together to develop the plan.

In November we submitted our plan to CLG as a front runner and also took it to our second village meeting.  I don’t know whether it’s just village communities or if we are something special, but each of our public meetings have packed the village hall with over 100 residents and with a total of 1,200 electorate we consider that there is a mandate for us to follow.

Amongst the nationwide applications for funding I am not sure that many came from community led groups, but I would commend any member to look at what they can achieve by a strategy that involves the entire community.  Surprisingly, for a village that sits in a vulnerable Green Belt location where no new development is proposed, the plan recognises the need to address the requirement for affordable homes and some sheltered accommodation.  Transport, highways, a new tree lined Jubilee Walk, a low carbon plan and a wish to find sites for 1,200 trees are all part of the challenges.

So my advice to members is to look at your new role, role up your sleeves and get stuck in.  It’s great fun and very rewarding.

Cllr David Smith is the former Leader of Lichfield District Council and plays an active and influential role in Local Government policy making and implementation at a national level.  David is the Chairman of the Local Government Research Partnership and has sat on the Local Government Association Environment and Housing Board.  In addition, he has joined the practitioner board of INLOGOV at the University of Birmingham.

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’.


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.