Council Tax Support – anatomy of a Pickles’ localism triumph

Chris Game

Shortly before the dissolution of Parliament, Communities & Local Government Secretary Eric Pickles issued an apparently self-penned eulogy of his ministerial record, entitled on the Government’s own website, in characteristic, cod Churchillian, style: Local Government: Delivering for England. It makes an interesting document, as would be hoped of one requiring two separate links.

First, I want to emphasise that it’s a genuinely useful exercise. It’s already easier than probably ever before to find out what the government thinks its policy is, at any particular time, both generally and by department and topic. Currently it has 224 of them. The DCLG has 24, including four each on local government and housing, and a rather extraordinary 215 “contain ‘local self-government’”.  There’s at least a Masters dissertation, surely: which nine Coalition policies failed to tick the ‘local self-government’ box?

Pickles’ eulogy, though, is quite different: a consummate politician’s listing of 60+ bullet-pointed triumphs and achievements, the like of which I at least can’t recall having for any previous administration.  The gov.uk version even gives us a proxy measure of the difference – in the dozens of instances of ‘[political content removed]’. And there’s another dissertation: the insight provided by the redacted and unredacted versions into civil service interpretation of ‘political content’ in the run-up to a General Election.

None of this, however, provides more than the opening key to the main subject of this blog. Somewhere between Pickles’ 50th and 60th bullet points – shortly before “supporting the Royal Wedding, Diamond Jubilee and VE Day by cutting Whitehall and municipal red tape on holding street parties, and introducing new laws to cut ‘elf and safety’ red tape on community events” – was “localising Council Tax Support (CTS), so councils are rewarded for getting people off the dole and welfare dependency and back into work, £1 billion has been cut from previous Council Tax Benefit (CTB) funding, and councils themselves bear the responsibility of increasing the living costs of some of their poorest residents.”

OK, I’d better come clean.  The ‘elf and safety’ bit is totally genuine – straight from the Pickles jar, as it were – but I’m afraid the last couple of clauses, after ‘back into work’, are mine, though, I would claim, entirely accurate and in a way slightly admiring.

For the CTB changes were Pickles’ self-styled muscular localism at its most politically skilful – a devolution of an important responsibility, impossible for councils to refuse, yet accompanied by conditions and constraints that meant any flak would go to them and any credit to the Conservative part of the Coalition.

The publication in the middle of the election campaign of the New Policy Institute’s third annual CTS monitoring report provides a timely opportunity to review one of the Coalition’s key and most controversial social policies, whose approaching launch was covered at the time in these columns.

The essence of the 2012 Welfare Reform Act was to replace, from April 2013, the means-tested Council Tax Benefit, paid for by the Department for Work and Pensions but administered to nearly 6 million recipients by local authorities, by Council Tax Support schemes individually determined and operated by the authorities themselves, and funded through business rates retention. It sounded like a laudable transfer of responsibilities from Whitehall to town hall – until you came to the attached strings.

First, with the professed aim of strengthening councils’ incentives to get people back into work, the amount the Government would pay local authorities for their new schemes would be 10% less than for CTB – creating for my own authority of Birmingham, for example, a funding gap of nearly £11 million.

Second, it ruled that pensioners receiving CTB must, and other particularly vulnerable groups should, be protected against any reduction in support – meaning in Birmingham that 54,000 pensioners were protected, while 83,000 working-age recipients were left shouldering potentially the whole savings burden.

It was only here, then, that the localism bit actually kicked in, with councils having the discretion, within a very tight deadline, to devise their own schemes to achieve these savings – and collect the taxes from their tens of thousands of new and aggrieved taxpayers.

In practice, this discretion amounted to three unenviable choices: spreading the cut in funding equally across virtually all CTB recipients apart from pensioners; giving the rebate to certain groups only; or continuing with the full rebate, and filling the gap either through raising council tax or finding savings elsewhere, on top of the savings already being demanded by the Government.

It would have been odd for a policy wholly designed to produce local difference not to do so, and there was and continues to be significant variation, in the metropolitan West Midlands as across the country. The practices adopted by the seven West Midlands metropolitan boroughs, though not statistically reflective of the national picture, can usefully illustrate it.

Game 9th April blog table

At that first time of asking in 2013, nearly 18% of the 326 English councils decided to continue with the same CTB-level rebate and somehow find the money, including four of the West Midlands seven.

70% of councils nationally and in the West Mids Birmingham and Wolverhampton – the two with the largest affected caseloads – introduced ‘minimum payment’ schemes, requiring everyone to pay at least some council tax, regardless of income. In Birmingham, therefore, it meant that almost all working-age people paid at least 20% of their council tax, representing an average annual payment of £147 or just under an extra £3 per week.

The remaining authorities, including Sandwell in our table, rejected ‘minimum payment’ but introduced other changes. Sandwell’s adjustments over the three years have included changing the income taper – the amount by which support is withdrawn as income increases; lowering the maximum savings limit over which one is no longer eligible for benefit; and reducing the second adult rebate – the benefit homeowners not on a low income receive if they share their home with someone (non-partner) on low income.

The main trends identified by the New Policy Institute over the now three years of CTS’ operation are the drop by nearly a third in the number of authorities still retaining all features of CTB, and the increase in percentage minimum payments – both seen in the West Midlands table. Nationally, 2.3 million low income families will pay on average £167 more in council tax in 2015/16 than they did under CTB, and 11% of those 2.3 million have also been affected by the ‘Bedroom Tax’ or ‘removal of the spare room subsidy’.

As for local councils, as is usually the case, they’ve generally coped – possibly too effectively for their own good. Some council tax collection rates have fallen fractionally, but nowhere (to my knowledge) as drastically as some predicted at the time. New council schemes to reduce worklessness are springing up all the time, but it’s difficult to identify which, if any, of these is incentivised by the CTB changes.

Something, though, is quantifiable.  Roughly £1 billion has been transferred from central government’s welfare bill to the shoulders of local government – and is being borne variously by increased bills for council tax support claimants, reductions in the claimant count, increased council tax bills for all, and reductions in other council budgets.  But then that’s muscular localism for you.

Chris Game - pic

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.

An earlier version of the blog was published by The Chamberlain Files.

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Pickles’ Shock-horror News: Biggest Councils Have Biggest Tax Arrears

Chris Game

Communities and Local Government Secretary Eric Pickles is famed for his sensitive news antennae. I wonder therefore just what – in a week dominated by revelations of his party’s and government’s moral flakiness on the whole tax collection business – persuaded those antennae that it would be a good time to attack local authorities’ tax collecting record.

Actually, I don’t wonder.  I assume that, as with the many other Pickles’ Passions – from council newspapers and biscuits at meetings (bad) to street parties and weekly bin collections (good) – he just can’t stop himself.

Councils’ uncollected taxes and hoarded revenue reserves have become Pickles’ winter perennials – a reassuring sign of approaching spring – and three league tables of the supposedly guiltiest councils were duly posted by the DCLG last Tuesday.

As a Birmingham City Council taxpayer, I was naturally interested to note that Birmingham featured prominently on two of these naughty lists – first of the 10 councils with highest council tax arrears, and fourth of those with highest non-ringfenced reserves – and, to be honest, slightly surprised that it didn’t register at all on the third. Doubtless to the minister’s disappointment, DCLG hadn’t found a single “surplus fixed asset, not directly occupied, used or consumed in the delivery of services”.

There’s no attempt to percentagise these lists, or acknowledge that there might just possibly be some relationship with, say, the size or relative deprivation of councils’ populations.  So Pickles’ shock-horror story amounts to large councils having bigger tax arrears, reserves, etc. than small councils.

It’s hardly headline stuff, but Local Government minister, Kris Hopkins, was determined we should share his boss’s outrage. During that same day’s Commons debate on the recent local government finance settlement, my and the University’s Birmingham, Edgbaston MP, Gisela Stuart, had questioned the fairness and sustainability of Birmingham’s share of that settlement. In customary Commons style, the minister, rather than answer that tricky question, preferred to tell the House about the council’s tax arrears:

“I am afraid that poor leadership in Birmingham and the fact it has not collected some £100 million in council tax arrears may explain some of the issues it is facing. Stronger leadership and the ability to carry out the simple function of placing a charge on an individual and collecting it will assist it” (col.671).

In the heat of the moment, Hopkins omitted to explain that this arrears figure was a cumulative one covering the whole 21-year life of the council tax, or that it includes costs incurred in collecting unpaid taxes. Nor, even more unfortunately, was there time for Gisela Stuart or anyone else to observe that the biggest councils have not only the largest cumulative tax arrears, but also, equally unsurprisingly, the largest tax receipts.

For, by Hopkins’ reasoning, Birmingham’s having collected £63 million more last year in council tax and non-domestic rates than any other English authority outside London presumably reflects rather positively on the quality of its political leadership (Table 5).

Returning from Planet Hopkins to the real world, the key statistics – and they are key – are those for tax collection rates: not pounds collected but percentages collected of the total sum due.

The 2013-14 council tax collection rate for all English authorities was 97%, ranging from shire districts’ 97.9% to 95.4% for Inner London boroughs and Birmingham’s most obvious comparators, the 36 metropolitan districts. Birmingham’s 95.3%, therefore, was fractionally below the met district average, but, as it happens, second highest among the 10 large authorities in the DCLG’s naughty list – behind only Croydon (96.2%) and way ahead of the coalition’s current favourite Labour council, Manchester (91.7%).

Certainly not the disgrace, then, that its heading of the naughty list suggested, but yes: both improvable and costly. If ever decimal places matter, it’s here. Though respectable nationally, Birmingham’s 95.4% collection rate was lowest of the seven West Midlands metropolitan districts – behind Solihull (98.6%) and, in a perhaps less expected second place, Sandwell (98%), ranked 9th most multiply deprived of England’s 326 local authorities against Birmingham’s 13th.  With each percentage point worth nearly £3 million, if Birmingham had achieved even Sandwell’s rate, it would have collected an additional £8 million – and a similar sum each year.

The DCLG’s non-ringfenced reserves naughty list is even more contestable. There is no set or professionally agreed formula for an ‘appropriate’ level of reserves, or for the balance between earmarked/ringfenced and unallocated reserves. But when CIPFA (Chartered Institute of Public Finance and Accountancy) asserts that councils increasing their cash reserves “is essential for protecting frontline services” and finance officers advise that, with council funding over the next few years being exceptionally uncertain, it’s only prudent to set aside reserves in anticipation, it’s hard for councillors – and should be for Pickles – to argue otherwise.

Birmingham’s prominence on this particular list – again, a consequence of its sheer size – is just perverse, given repeated warnings by the council’s external auditors about the councils’ reserves being, if anything, too low. In fact, last month’s Annual Audit letter noted specifically a concern regarding the “relatively low levels of general fund reserves (£85.8 million compared to a revenue budget of £3.5 billion)” (p.7).

Returning to tax collection, if there are numbers of individual councils that find it difficult to, as the minister put it, “carry out the simple function of placing a charge on an individual and collecting it”, what should we make of Her Majesty’s less than exhaustively tenacious Revenue and Customs (HMRC)?

One of HMRC’s helpful ancillary services – or hostages to fortune – is its annual report detailing all the taxes it doesn’t collect: in 2012-13 just the £34 billion – or 6.8% of the total it should have managed.  In other words, all but the very worst council tax collection rates exceed the average managed by the people whose sole job is tax collection.

If we take that most “simple function” of individual taxation, English local authorities failed to collect £734 million (3%) in council tax, while HMRC failed to collect £14.2 billion (5.3%) in income tax, NI contributions and capital gains tax. From businesses, councils failed to collect £478 million (2.1%) in non-domestic rates, while HMRC failed to collect £12.4 billion (10.9%) in VAT, and £3.9 billion (8.7%) in corporation tax.

As Matthew, the Galilean tax collector-turned-gospeller, might have put it: You hypocrite, Pickles; first take the plank out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to remove the speck from your brother’s eye.

game

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.

New ways of working for district councils

Anthony Mason

My primary school history teacher always taught that the shires of England were mapped out by Alfred the Great. For me, that story was confirmed by an illustration in my treasured Ladybird book on the great man (Alfred – not the teacher) that shows four burly Saxons knocking in a waymark post as they lay out the boundary pattern. I still have that book. I later learned that while the reality was much more complicated, it is essentially true that much of our shire county structure would be familiar to a returning Anglo Saxon – even if not much else would be.

And while our present pattern of local government boundaries isn’t quite so longstanding, the institutional structure of local government outside the cities and metropolitan areas in England has been much more stable than the landscape in health administration – which seems to change with every incoming Secretary of State. Of course, we’ve seen some reorganisation in the shire counties in the years since 1974, when the foundations of our present system were put into place, but much of rural England is still governed by two tiers of council – three if you count the parishes.

The relative stability of the system doesn’t prevent people talking about changing it. On the contrary, no gathering of local government officers or members would be complete without talk of the supposed delights or evils of unitary local government – especially in the bar later at night. Our counterparts in Wales and Scotland have gone down the unitary path some time ago; and for some, the crazy English mosaic of cities, unitaries, counties, boroughs and districts is an affront to rational workable local governance.

Eric Pickles isn’t among these. And while the great man is famous (or infamous) for many things, his mythical “pearl-handled revolver” ready for the first person to come into his office and propose the structural reorganisation of local government, must be one of his most repeated aphorisms. For once, he may be on to something. Recent work by the New Local Government Network points out that while there are savings to be had from “unitarising” two tier councils, there are costs involved as well. The report also makes a strong case that some of the claimed savings from reorganisation may already have been realised as district councils increasingly work in collaboration and share services and even management teams in some cases.

INLOGOV is now working with the District Councils’ Network (DCN) to explore further the case for retaining the essence of the two tier structure after the 2015 general election. This doesn’t mean no-change: rather, it recognises that structural reorganisation of itself may offer little stimulus to change. Transformation comes from adopting new and sometimes radically different ways of working and collaborating across the public and voluntary sectors rather than worrying about tiers of councils. We’re relatively early in the project and the DCN team has just issued a “call for evidence” to districts (and indeed others) to showcase new and innovative models of working – especially where there is good evidence of positive outcomes.

So now is the opportunity for those in two tier local government to map out the case for innovation and creativity in the way they work – but still set in the 1974 institutional structures. You have until January 16th 2015 to make a submission.

Perhaps my Ladybird book (price, 2/6d) can have some currency for a little while longer?

Anthony Mason

Anthony Mason is an Associate at INLOGOV and works mostly on local government systems and organisation and on improving public sector partnerships.  His early career was in local government followed by more than 20 years in PwC’s public sector consultancy team

The LGC100: what it does and doesn’t measure

Chris Game

I used, years ago, to have a whole Pol Sci 1 lecture about power and influence, their similarities and differences. By one of life’s synchronicities, I’ve been reminded of it twice in the past week. Don’t go – I’m not about to disinter it, although I will share the six-word summary that I could, if really pushed, get it down to: Power’s a tool, Influence a skill.

Actually, I will elaborate a bit, at least to the 16-word précis: I is a form of P, but P can be exercised through means other than I. Power, in other words, trumps influence, as was demonstrated in Wednesday evening’s feverish purchasing of high-price London homes following George Osborne’s introduction of stamp duty bands.

To adapt my lecture illustration: estate agents spent possibly months trying to influence wavering purchasers’ views of the great bargain their £2 million Myleene Klass garage/apartment would represent; then along comes George and suddenly the hesitants are desperate to exchange contracts by midnight and save themselves (I think) £55,000. The Chancellor had the power to change the whole deal – as could the garage owners, had they decided to drop their price. The estate agent – yes, I can feel your pity – has, at most, influence.

Power is supposedly sexy – period, and certainly sexier than influence, which is why magazines with circulation-boosting ‘Top 100’ lists will generally try for ‘Most Powerful’, even if they have to resort to sophistry. Forbes, the US business magazine, does both the World’s Most Powerful People: Putin, Obama, Xi Jinping, Pope Francis, Angela Merkel; and Most Powerful Women: Merkel, Janet Yellen (Chair, Federal Reserve), Melinda Gates, Dilma Rousseff (President, Brazil).

I’ve no argument with any of these. The Putin vs. Obama thing’s interesting, but, if you annexe Crimea and do a $70 billion gas pipeline deal with China – well, for me that’s right up there with banded stamp duty. But then at 17 in the Women’s list there’s Beyoncé Knowles, personification of the power vs. influence problem.

Sure, have her No.1 in Forbes’ Celebrity 100 List. I’d even grudgingly accept her heading Time magazine’s 100 Most Influentials, or, to be accurate, being their Top Titan – Time fudging its listing by grouping its 100 into Titans, Pioneers, Artists, Leaders and Icons, presumably to avoid, say, Miley Cyrus embarrassingly outranking Pope Francis.

But, whatever Titans are/do, Beyoncé sings, and, even if she does release her songs exclusively on iTunes, that’s essentially popularity, not power. It’s the same with cats. The cat food Friskies’ Most Influential Cat on the Internet – ‘Grumpy Cat’ (aka Tardar Sauce, and apparently it’s feline dwarfism, not perpetual pet petulance) – has 250,000 followers, which is also popularity and could even be influence, but it ain’t power.

Which brings us to the LGC100, the Local Government Chronicle’s periodic listing and ranking of the most influential people in local government – and in which we at INLOGOV have the pleasant responsibility to declare an interest, in all senses.

The LGC100 obviously differs from the Friskies 50 index, but there are similarities. First big difference is the complete absence of cats from even the long list. Second, selection is by a nine-judge panel, with “vast experience across the sector” – apart, apparently, from that of being elected members. Third, it’s forward-looking: those most likely to exert influence over the sector in the next 12 months.

Yes, the big similarity with the Friskies 50 is that it’s very definitely about influence, in the sense that I’ve been trying to suggest, rather than power. Out of hopefully excusable exuberance, INLOGOV’s official announcement stated that our Director, Catherine Staite, had been ranked the 45th “most powerful” person in the world of local government, which wasn’t the actual citation and, given that world’s diverse and highly political character, risked being potentially misleading – prompting this intendedly explanatory blog.

As I see it, LGC could have taken the sophists’ soft option, have pretended theirs is a Power Index, but, like Time, with separate groupings for mayors and council leaders, chief execs, national politicians, civil servants and officials, consultants, commentators, etc. Which would have risked being little more interesting than the proverbial wet weekend in Wigan – which, I’d better emphasise, isn’t boring at all, and moreover has a still comparatively rare female CE in Donna Hall (No 55).

Instead, they’ve taken the braver and inevitably more provocative path of having a single sector-wide set of reputational rankings, and it behoves us to recognise that those rankings are assessments of likely future influence, and not of current or recent power.

If they were current power rankings, then, whatever we might think of him, Eric Pickles’ dramatic slide from 1 in 2011 to 15 would take some explaining – although it does remain noteworthy for at least two reasons. First, all previous listings have been headed by the senior local government minister: John Healey in 2007 and 2008, and Pickles in 2011. This time, the only minister in the top 10 is Danny Alexander, Chief Secretary to the Treasury, at 7 [The PM and Chancellor are excluded from consideration, as is the Leader of the Opposition].

Second, Alexander’s relatively high position suggests Pickles’ fall can’t be attributed entirely to next May’s election, as he’s also adrift of Health Secretary, Jeremy Hunt (11), and Greg Clark, Minister for Universities, Science and Cities (13), who may also have lost their ministerial red boxes before the year’s half through. A comparable consideration – imminent retirement – surely does, however, largely explain DCLG Permanent Secretary Sir Bob Kerslake’s apparently lowly 85. Incidentally, the actual local government minister, Kris Hopkins, may or may not be grateful that LGC have extended their list from 50 to 100, as his perceived future influence has him down at 93 – just below Watford elected mayor, Dorothy Thornhill (92), and just ahead of Nan Sloane, Director of The Centre for Women and Democracy (95).

I’ve now mentioned four ranked women and six men, and it would be good if that 40% female representation or the 40% in the top 10 were reflections of the list overall. They aren’t. There are 11 women in the top 50 and 21 in the full 100, which proportionately is lower than in either 2011 or 2008 – and, yes, I do know Doncaster’s CE, Jo Miller (27), and Centre for Cities’ Alex Jones (83) are women, while Localis’ Alex Thomson (54) is definitely male.

If those figures are disappointing, those for ethnic diversity are worse. An important new survey was published in September into the diversity of staff working in the top 5,000 leadership roles within the public and voluntary sectors. Conducted by a team headed by Trevor Phillips, former chair of the Equality & Human Rights Commission, the Green Park Public Service Leadership 5,000 survey found that ethnic diversity in local authority leadership is so low that it “almost defies analysis” – and that was before Lambeth CE Derrick Anderson announced his impending departure. Though obviously not itself a statistical exercise, the LGC100 reinforces that sad conclusion.

Important as that conclusion is, though, it would be wrong for this particular blog to end on anything but a more upbeat note. First, there’s the overall picture, with local government people not only heading the list – the Manchester City Council duo of Leader, Sir Richard Leese, and CE Sir Howard Bernstein – but comfortably outnumbering, as they jolly well should, national politicians and officials by 46 to 33. And, if you forget the messy election business and count members of the Upper House as politicians – Lords Adonis (26) and Shipley (69) – then they just pip officials by 40 to 39. No amount of fiddling, though, will prevent the biggest single group in the top 20 being, by a distance, national politicians.

Finally and closer to home, INLOGOV Director Catherine Staite’s 45th position is, by any standards, a proud achievement – for her and collectively for those academic and other Institute colleagues with whom she works (I can say that, being nowadays extremely semi-detached and, at least in that sense, no longer among that number). It doesn’t mean LGC panellists have judged her more powerful or important than, say, Birmingham City Council Leader, Sir Albert Bore (50), or London Mayor, Boris Johnson (57), or even former INLOGOV Director, Sir Michael Lyons (70), author of the recent Labour-commissioned Lyons Housing Review of the underlying causes of the housing crisis.

It does, on the other hand, seem to suggest that those panellists see INLOGOV as already, and perhaps increasingly, prominent in the local government world, and – particularly through collaborative work with other public sector and international organisations – like the recent 2020 Vision report with Grant Thornton, Exploring finance and policy futures for English local government – – an increasingly influential player.

Chris Game - picChris 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.

Pickles’ Tower Hamlets takeover: a sad affair all round

Chris Game

He kept Communities and Local Government Secretary, Eric Pickles, waiting until almost literally the 23rd hour of the 14th day of his two-week deadline. In the end, though, Tower Hamlets’ elected mayor, Lutfur Rahman, having last Friday lost his second, and ill-advised, application for a judicial review, was left with little choice.

With forced smile and through gritted teeth, he was willing to accept and “welcome” the minister’s ‘intervention package’ and his three commissioners, who until March 2017 will take over specified mayoral and council responsibilities. About the only proviso he could muster to cover his mayoral modesty was that the solutions they offer should be “proportionate and workable” – which is about as low as climb-downs go.

The fortnight deadline had been conceded by Pickles when he made his intervention statement to the Commons on November 4, following a critical Best Value report by PricewaterhouseCoopers (PwC) into the borough’s governance arrangements. He could afford to be briefly conciliatory, because he knew Tower Hamlets’ fate had been effectively sealed in the summer, when the mayor’s first application for a judicial review was dismissed in the first line of the judgement as “hopeless”.

By one of life’s pleasing coincidences, that judgement coincided almost precisely with PwC’s regulatory advisory services unit being fined $25 million (or roughly Tower Hamlets’ annual transport budget) and suspended from consulting work for watering down a money laundering report.

I doubt if even Pickles suspects Tower Hamlets of money laundering, but, having also received hefty fines in recent years for failing to safeguard client assets – and “failing to comply with some of the most elementary auditing standards and procedures” – PwC must have seemed the ideal choice for someone who evidently reckons, like the ancient proverb, that an old poacher makes the best gamekeeper.

These PwC cases are, I suggest, more than mere debating points. The fines – and there are several easily searchable others – were for more serious and hugely more self-profiting misconduct than anything its report finds Tower Hamlets guilty of, and the company’s been violating best practice years longer than Mayor Rahman has been in office.

When the PwC report was published a fortnight ago the immediate response of the mayor and council was that it contained “no evidence of criminality or fraud”.

Unrefuted though it was, Rahman’s use of the F-for-Fraud word was (a) at least questionable, (b) a potential hostage to fortune, and (c) somewhat disingenuous. The questionability is that the report does refer (p.28) to “evidence of possible fraudulent payments” of grants to third-sector organisations (emphasis added), but, with the evidence now in the hands of the police, it is not examined further in the report.

The hostage to fortune is that many, probably most, of the fraud accusations levelled at Rahman concern the conduct not of council business but of elections – particularly his own 2014 mayoral re-election, which he won by only 4% from Labour’s John Biggs – and the investigations into these are still very much ongoing. There’s been a detailed judicial scrutiny of ballot papers, and an election fraud trial will take place in the High Court probably in January.

In relation to PwC’s Best Value Inspection report, the fraud reference is also disingenuous, because, as Rahman obviously knows, fraud is not what Best Value is primarily about.

BV was the concept introduced by New Labour in 1999 to supplant the Thatcher/Major policy of Compulsory Competitive Tendering. A council’s duty of BV is “to make arrangements to secure continuous improvement in the way in which its functions are exercised, having regard to a combination of economy, efficiency and effectiveness” (emphases added). The 3Es are quite carefully defined, but “arrangements” aren’t.

The point is, though, that BV is about the existence and satisfactory operation of arrangements and processes. To demonstrate failure to comply, therefore, it isn’t necessary to demonstrate that money has been spent fraudulently, or even in a manner that has failed to achieve an appropriate standard of the 3Es; merely that satisfactory arrangements either haven’t been in place or haven’t operated satisfactorily.

Eric Pickles directed the PwC inspection to focus on the arrangements in four specific areas – those about which there had been most allegations, and essentially those that the commissioners will now take over: payment of grants, transfer of property to third parties, process and practices for entering into contracts, and spending and decisions on publicity.

The PwC report is roughly 200 pages long and by no means a hatchet job. Contracts, for example, were found unproblematic, and publicity received less criticism than Pickles personally would probably have liked.

On the other hand, three of the four property disposals examined were judged BV failures, and grant allocations were found to be all over the place – or rather, the very reverse, disproportionately concentrated on Bangladeshi and Somali groups and areas.

Best Value is a statutory duty and some of PwC’s findings showed serious deficiencies in “arrangements” and processes – much more serious than the mayor at first seemed to acknowledge, as he tried to downplay them as easily remediable “regrettable flaws”.

The really sad thing about this whole affair is the message it sends about local democracy. A Conservative minister, for whom most Tower Hamlets residents would never dream of voting, commissions a report from a bunch of highly-paid professionals, which finds that locally elected politicians have had the temerity to question and even override the advice of more highly paid, unelected officials, probably living outside the borough. And finally, a third set of highly paid unelected officials is sent in to take over. At least some of those voters must surely be wondering why they bothered.

Chris Game - picChris 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.

Devolution’s biggest hurdle: Whitehall’s culture of contempt

Chris Game

Labour published its draft 2015 local government manifesto recently. Entitled Labour and localism: perspectives on a new English deal, the core of the deal is a radical new approach to the financing of local government:

“ … too much power is hoarded in Whitehall.  That’s why we need a fundamental shift from the centre to the local – communities, towns, cities and counties – which gives more power to people and to the elected politicians we already have.” (p.4)

Sounds good, doesn’t it, but also perhaps faintly familiar? Compare and contrast, as they say, with this:

“Over the last forty years, governments of all colours have been guilty of weakening local government. Bureaucratic control has replaced democratic accountability. Hoarding of power by distant politicians and unaccountable officials in Whitehall has damaged society by eroding trust.

“We believe if you decentralise power, you get better results and better value for money. So the plans in this manifesto represent an unprecedented redistribution of power and control from the central to the local, from politicians and the bureaucracy to individuals, families and neighbourhoods.”

The comparison, I think you’ll agree, shows that they’re pretty similar – lots of Whitehall hoarding being supplanted by earth-moving shifts of power to localities. The contrast is that the second quote comes from the Conservatives’ manifesto in 2010 – p.73, to be precise.

Which means, of course, that the ‘unprecedented redistribution’ must already be well underway. Evidence on the ground, however, suggests otherwise.  I doubt, for instance, if Somerset Levels residents, whose ground is currently flooded, reckon they’ve seen much redistribution – of power, that is, not water. They’ve discovered the hard way that, even if their elected local drainage boards manage to persuade the unelected Environment Agency that dredging and other flood defence work is necessary, what actually happens is determined by the Agency’s funding from the Department for Environment, and ultimately by benefit-to-cost rules imposed by the Treasury.

That’s how things work, in our most hypercentralised of governmental systems. As Yes, Minister taught us back in the 1980s and, as that Conservative manifesto acknowledged, Whitehall bureaucracy trumps local democracy every time.

Regarding local government, it’s hard to know whether the politicians who signed up to that 2010 decentralisation pledge, or the Ministers subsequently responsible for implementing it, ever really believed in it – other than as a vote-winning slogan. Communities and Local Government Secretary, Eric Pickles, self-admittedly didn’t. His brand of what he calls ‘muscular localism’ involves effectively setting councils’ tax and spending levels and telling them how often they should empty our refuse bins.

Cities Minister, Greg Clark, at least tries to walk the localisation walk, with his City Deals policy of stimulating city-driven economic growth through negotiated packages of powers and discretions. However, doubling until recently as Financial Secretary to the Treasury, few knew better than Clark where the serious power in Britain resides, irrespective of the party in government.  It’s in Whitehall departments and ultimately in the quaintly addressed Unit 1, Horse Guards Road, aka Her Majesty’s Treasury – between them a far more formidable obstacle to a genuine English devolution deal than any temporary bunch of Ministers.

Were any confirmation needed, it’s come in spades recently, in the Institute for Government’s fascinating study, Achieving Political Decentralisation, of how and why opposition parties so good at making commitments to devolve power have as governments found it so hard to implement them. Tom Gash and his IfG colleagues identify from their case studies a pleasingly neat, if depressing, ten obstacles to reform that anyone seeking to decentralise power must navigate.

At Number 1 – where else could it be? – is Resistance from national government, the essence of which is “the fact that ministers and civil servants simply do not trust sub-national government to competently exercise additional powers and … constantly worry that they will “do something barmy” (p.20). It almost beggars belief, doesn’t it? The civil service folks who brought us the NHS IT programme, the Child Support Agency, the West coast rail franchising fiasco, non-flying Chinook helicopters, and mothballed aircraft carriers sit around worrying about other people’s sanity and competence!

Unfortunately, there’s a serious point here, although – certainly on this platform – I’m inclined to put it less genteely than the IfG. Whitehall departments’ resistance to devolution doesn’t stem just from it being their powers and budgets that parties, when in opposition, want to devolve. Much worse, the beneficiaries would be a collection of local councils and politicians that senior civil servants generally regard in much the way that Mr Banks, prior to being saved by Mary Poppins, viewed his children: with an unconcealed mixture of disdain and distrust.

For the alliteratively inclined, it amounts to a culture of centralist contempt, and is naturally seen most obviously in the big things: local government’s huge dependence on central funding, the centre’s stranglehold on councils’ housebuilding, planning, and indeed their total budgets. If you actually work in local government, though, it’s possibly the smaller things – the almost daily drip, drip of petty insult, distrust, denigration and condescension – that really get you down. Let me illustrate with a couple of examples from last week’s drips – one trivial but irritating, one non-trivial and infuriating.

First, we have a typical illustration of how our Communities Secretary, when aggrieved, resorts to the role of Victorian paterfamilias and takes it out on his local authority children. Thwarted by Cabinet colleagues from reducing the council tax referendum trigger from an increase of 2% to 1.5 or even 1%, Pickles immediately put before Parliament alternative proposals he claimed would protect ‘hard-working families’ from their greedy councils: requiring them to publish, as a matter of record, each councillor’s individual vote on any council tax changes.

The Minister had discovered that most councils’ budget votes last year, whether to freeze or increase their council tax, were by a show of hands, with just the totals or results recorded in the Minutes. He disingenuously implies that this represents something underhand, although, as a onetime council leader, he knows full well that this is how most council votes are taken – a ‘named vote’ being taken only if called for by a specified number of councillors.

Taking Labour-controlled Birmingham as an example, there were in fact three named votes at last February’s Council budget meeting, on amendments proposed by the minority Conservative and Lib Dem parties. Named votes were called for, and the amendments were comfortably defeated by Labour’s 71 councillors voting en bloc – precisely as they would have done in support of the main motions to approve the Council’s Business Plan, Budget and Council Tax Requirement.

And that’s the point. In most council votes, as in Parliament, councillors vote with their party, and when one party has a clear overall majority, a named vote serves little purpose and wastes time. If Pickles wants to argue that the annual setting of the level of council tax is uniquely important, that’s fine. But to pretend that recorded votes will enhance local accountability and keep tax rates down is a deception of his hard-working families, as well as confirmation that he feels it entirely appropriate for a Cabinet Minister to dictate in detail how elected local governments conduct their business.

My second case is an archetypal central government gaffe – an example of what happens when you legislate from the centre without adequate consultation or scrutiny. This time it was the Bedroom Tax (or Spare Room Subsidy) – last April’s controversial change by the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) that cut the housing benefit of those living in a council or housing association property deemed to have one or more spare bedrooms. The legislation should have exempted working-age tenants who had been living at the same address and entitled to claim housing benefit continuously since 1 January 1996. Basic as it seems, it didn’t – meaning that estimated tens of thousands of tenants are entitled to refunds of around £640 for 40 weeks of undue reductions.

To ordinary citizens, expecting perhaps at least a hint of humility, the DWP’s response to councils might seem extraordinary, and even for those of us only too familiar with the ways of central government, it was a minor classic. First, they disputed all local government and housing professionals’ estimates of the numbers. Their methodology calculated that “very few” households – maybe 5,000 – were affected.

Second, no, they wouldn’t disclose their methodology, even to the Local Government Association. Third, while the DWP would of course close the loophole, councils could pay for the department’s unfortunate slip-up by footing the bill for identifying, locating and refunding the relevant claimants. And you thought maybe I was exaggerating, talking of a centralist culture of contempt?

game

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.