Land Value (or Garden) Tax and the General Election – more Adam Smith than Jeremy Marx

Chris Game

One consequence of Theresa May delaying until mid-April her U-turn on holding a General Election was seen almost immediately – when it was decreed too late for the General, local and mayoral elections all to take place synchronously. It could have saved money and probably doubled the local and mayoral turnouts. Which in turn would almost certainly have avoided the unfortunate situations in the West Midlands and Liverpool City Region, where the new metro mayors, Andy Street and Steve Rotheram, were elected with vote mandates – 239,000 and 171,000 respectively – significantly smaller than were achieved in May last year by their respective Police and Crime Commissioners.

Another consequence of the May delay is that, with the parties’ General Election manifestos published almost immediately after the local elections, we heard – even before ‘security’ issues captured the campaign – less directly about local government than we might normally have done. Until now, that is – for I’ve prepared a micro version of the Local Government Election Manifesto Quiz that I’d previously have endeavoured to inflict on my captive undergrads. It’s based on the local government sections of the Conservative, Labour, Liberal Democrat and Green party manifestos – with links and page references for the exceptionally keen or doubtful.

Which manifesto do you reckon (or recall):

  • mentions “local government” just twice in 84 pages (pp. 32, 81)?
  • proposes (p.103) creating a Minister for England in the Department for Communities and Local Government?
  • will introduce (p.27) a ‘presumption of devolution’, whereby devolved powers transferred from the EU post-Brexit will go straight to the relevant region or nation?
  • wants (p.94) ‘devolution on demand’, enabling devolution of Westminster powers to groups of councils working together – like a Cornish Assembly or Yorkshire Parliament – with or without a mayor?
  • would (p.74) replace Police and Crime Commissioners with accountable police boards of local councillors?
  • will encourage councils to economise by painting yellow lines where you can park?
  • wants (p.17) more empty homes brought back into use, and a trial of a Land Value Tax (LVT) to encourage the use of vacant land and reduce speculation?

The answers, apart from the Monster Raving Loony Party’s yellow paint one – just to check you were paying attention – are in the order the parties were listed above: C, L, L, LD, LD, G. Points for correct answers, none for incorrect – except the last one, for which you can award yourself points for either Labour (p.86) or the Lib Dems (p.40), as well as the Greens.

Which is one of several noteworthy things about this relatively sudden cross-party interest in land value taxation. First, it was indeed mentioned by all three parties, and in almost identically vague terms. The Greens’ “trial” was the strongest commitment – appropriately, with their Co-Leader Caroline Lucas being probably the tax’s most prominent recent parliamentary advocate. The Lib Dems would merely “consider” it, while for Labour it’s one possible “new option” in an overall review of local government funding. In no manifesto – including, I emphasise, Labour’s – is it a policy, plan, pledge or commitment. None give it more than a part-sentence, and there’s not a figure or any other detail in sight.

Which might explain why, when the respective manifestos appeared, it received effectively no media attention whatever. Until last week, when Conservative campaign headquarters was presumably tasked with fabricating something to counter the damage done by Labour turning Theresa May’s social care charge into a ‘dementia tax’. Accordingly, the nerdish-sounding LVT was frankensteined into a culture-threatening – sorry: Marxist, culture-threatening – ‘Garden Tax’ aimed at undermining the foundations of English family life as we know it. The inaptly-named ‘red-top’ Conservative-supporting tabloids were accordingly briefed and unleashed.

“Labour’s secret plans, hidden in the small print of Jeremy Corbyn’s manifesto”, contain “proposals to replace council tax and business rates” with “a destructive, devastating tax on homes and gardens that a Tory analysis estimates would result in a yearly tax bill of £3,837 for an average family home in England – a massive 224 per cent increase on the current average billsend house prices plummeting, and plunge mortgage holders into negative equity.” Since when there have been daily updates in the same vein, with even Philip Hammond, in possibly his final days as Chancellor, accusing Labour of a “Marxist tax grab”.

There’s a minor irony here. The principle of land value taxation – the recognition that land’s true ‘location’ value derives less from the actions of the individual owner than from the wider efforts of the community in creating transport links, schools, hospitals and other infrastructure, and the community should benefit from this ‘unearned betterment’ part of the value accordingly – does indeed have history. Far from an invention of Corbyn’s Labour Party, it dates back well beyond Marx to at least the 18th Century classical economists, Adam Smith and David Ricardo: hardly proto-Marxists. Indeed, the bearded one himself dismissed it as a distraction from the historically inevitable transition from capitalism to communism.

Others, however, have supported it, and even enthused, seeing its combination of economic efficiency and progressiveness (the wealthiest paying most) as close to a ‘perfect tax’ – which even I, as an economic illiterate, can see is somewhat overegging it. Even so, its signed-up supporters make an impressive list, including the then Liberal, Winston Churchill; economics textbook king, Paul Samuelson; Mrs Thatcher’s favourite economist, Milton Friedman; the Adam Smith Institute, and the Institute for Fiscal Studies. The truth is that any future review of local finance would be more criticisable for omitting LVT than for including it.

 

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.

The General Election – Opportunity Nottingham Considers the Complexities of Voting for Those Facing Multiple Needs

In this post Opportunity Nottingham offer a different perspective on election coverage. They talk about the importance of listening and responding to those facing multiple needs in the run up to this election.

With the upcoming general election just weeks away, it is important that everyone who has the right to vote is given the opportunity to do so. However, for vulnerable and marginalised people, this right is not always easy to exercise. If you subscribe to the view that better engagement equals more effective policy, then surely this must begin with the democratic process?

At Opportunity Nottingham, we support one such marginalised group. Our Beneficiaries face multiple and complex needs, specifically; substance misuse, homelessness, offending and mental ill health. In order to deliver this support, we work in partnership with agencies and organisations including those in the areas of social justice, social care, housing and healthcare. Beneficiaries often have pro-longed contact with these types of services, and frequently report feeling ‘passed from one service to another’, having to tell their story repeatedly. This can lead to disengagement from services and those deemed as ‘in authority’, as people inevitably fall through the gaps. It makes sense therefore, that people facing multiple and complex needs become disengaged from the political process. Lack of trust, lack of understanding and lack of access to information all have their part to play.

After the general election was called, we had a meeting with our Expert Citizen Group (a group of people who are experts through lived experience of multiple needs) and asked if they would be voting. The response was almost unanimous. Firstly, they didn’t know how to register to vote; and secondly, they didn’t have enough knowledge surrounding the election. As a team we explored the voting process in more detail, and one of the main issues to arise, was the assumption that in order to vote you must have a fixed address. This assumption meant that many of our Expert Citizens thought they were not eligible to vote.

We also spent time discussing why it is so important to vote, particularly in relation to how policy decisions will be influenced by the electorate. For example, if there is an increase in homeless people registering to vote, politicians are more likely to make decisions around issues that are relevant to them, such as healthcare and social housing.

During the meeting two of our Expert Citizens registered online to vote, with the rest taking away the necessary registration forms to register. Evidence (if needed) that if the process, reasons and potential outcomes of voting are understood, a vote is more likely to be made.

Whilst a snap election gave us limited time to encourage registration, it has highlighted a number of ‘needs’ for the future if the most marginalised in society are to get their voices heard;

  • A need for the voting system to be understood by all of society
  • A need for voting criteria to be clearly communicated
  • A need for voting information to reach those who might not easily access mainstream media and information sources.

Research can test the value of this and, critically, identify practical ways to enfranchise those whose lives could be turned around with the right support.

Opportunity Nottingham supports individuals (Beneficiaries) facing multiple and complex needs in Nottingham City. To join the programme, Beneficiaries must be experiencing at least three out of the following four criteria of homelessness, offending, substance misuse and mental ill health. The project has two main aims; to empower those facing multiple needs to live fulfilled lives, and to drive system change and better support those facing multiple needs. To find out more email enquiries@opportunitynottingham.co.uk or call 0115 850 4128.

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This blog was jointly penned by Sam Ward (Personal Development Coordinator), Robert Eagle, Sandra Morgan, Deonne Peters, and Lee Orrell (Beneficiary Ambassadors) at Opportunity Nottingham, and Zoe Benedelow, Service Manager from SEA (Services for Empowerment and Advocacy).

May’s Conservatives: closer to a genuinely national party than Thatcher in ’83?

General Election, opinion polls, YouGov regional poll, regional variations, 1983 General election, Margaret Thatcher, Sadiq Khan

You might think, given the record of opinion polls in the 2015 election campaign, that there’d be slightly fewer of them this time. Dream on! So far this month national voting intention polls have averaged well over one a day. Of the 28, precisely none have shown the Conservatives on less than 44% – that is, over 6% higher than they managed in the 2015 election; and just one – the ‘outlier’ of those published this past weekend – put Labour behind by less than 10%, compared to the 6.6% GB gap last time.

There is an iron law in opinion poll reporting: the more eye-catching and exceptional the finding, the louder it will be reported, and the more likely it is to prove a ‘rogue’ result. Unsurprisingly, therefore, this ‘single-figure lead’ poll prompted instant speculation about whether Corbyn’s Labour could win more votes than it did under Miliband, or even increase its return of 232 MPs, which at least temporarily displaced the McLuskey-prompted ruction about whether just 200 Labour MPs would qualify as a successful campaign.

That would in fact be Labour’s worst result since 1935, worse even than 1983, when under Michael Foot’s leadership it was reduced to 209 MPs. And, while the PM may understandably wince at personal comparisons with Margaret Thatcher, and in her party’s ‘Reddish Tory’ manifesto has certainly distanced herself ideologically, it still seems most likely that it is with that latter election that, as polling day approaches, statistical comparisons will be made – starting in the second part of this blog.

The first part looks at something arguably more interesting – the regional variations in current voting intentions, as collated by YouGov in a total GB sample of over 17,400 respondents, and compared to the actual votes in the 2015 election, summarised in the central sections of the table below.

Regional%20voting%20intentions%202.JPG

The ‘headline voting intention’ that would have been reported in YouGov’s late April/early May polls – that is, excluding ‘don’t know’s and ‘won’t say’s and weighted by respondents’ self-described likelihood to vote – would show the Conservatives with a 16% lead over Labour, with the Lib Dems on about 10% and UKIP around 7% and sliding.

The modesty of the Lib Dems’ post-2010 recovery, the recent collapse of UKIP, and the performance of other smaller parties are obviously important and will be decisive in many individual constituencies. But my main concern here is the bigger picture: the variation in the Conservatives’ current lead across the regions, and the extent to which the figures support the claim that Theresa May is increasingly keen to make of her party being truly national in its appeal and support.

We’re used to seeing political maps of the UK, whether of national or local government, from a ‘geographic’ viewpoint: each constituency or council a blob of appropriate colour the relative size of its land area. Shown such a map of the 2015 election results, an innocent visitor would probably conclude that, in England and Wales at least, we’re already there: more or less a one-party state. Even London, where Labour took 45 of the 73 seats, has to be magnified to look more than a red smudge in an ocean of bright blue.

Now, though, following the local elections, Conservatives actually are the largest party in every English county and county unitary authority except Durham, and the regional YouGov polls tell a similar story. The swing of support between the two major parties since May 2015, coupled with the respective performances of UKIP and the Lib Dems, has put us on the brink of becoming, as well as just looking cartographically, a one-party state.

In under two years, one English region, Yorkshire/Humber, has swung from majority Labour to majority Conservative. A second, the North West, has seen a 14% lead completely disappear. And, most strikingly, Wales and Scotland, for decades dominated almost monopolistically by Labour, are both currently showing the Conservatives with a clear two-party voting lead.

In general, and with one big exception, the below-average 2015-17 swings from Labour to Conservative have been in the already strongest Tory areas – the South East, South West, and East of England. And the above-average swings have been in the traditionally strongest Labour areas, where they can make the relatively greater electoral impact: the North East, an early deliverer in the form of an unexpected mayoral victory in Tees Valley; the North West, May’s choice for her launch of the party manifesto; the Midlands, Scotland and Wales.

The massive exception to all this is obviously London, increasingly unmoored in so many respects, it seems, from the rest of the country. Current voting intentions don’t quite match the 44% to 35% split in 2015, and with which Sadiq Khan won the mayoralty last year, but they’re very close.

London’s real political exceptionalism, however, is shown when we start comparing with 1983 and the figures in the final columns of my table. In that election the regional voting figures in London and the West Midlands were close to identical: 44/45% Conservative, 30/31% Labour, 25/27% SDP-Liberal Alliance, and in both cases a (highlighted) 14% Conservative lead.

By 2015 that lead had been reduced to 9% in the West Midlands, but in London had been reversed to one of 9% for Labour. And over the past two years that divergence has accelerated, with the Conservatives 23% ahead in the West Midlands and Labour 5% ahead in London.

The last (bracketed) column in the table is intended to take advantage of the fact that nationally the Conservatives’ current lead in voting intentions is effectively the same as that achieved by Margaret Thatcher’s party in 1983, and to see how the different regions compare and contrast.

Headed massively by London there are four minus signs, but the seven pluses suggest that May’s Conservatives are indeed developing a claim to be a more genuinely nationally supported party than we’ve seen for at least several decades.

 

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.

Make elections work for you: check the polls, but follow the money

Chris Game

Spoiler alert: this is a blog about elections, but not local elections – mainly because it’s about election betting, and, with one conspicuous exception, which will be mentioned, our modern-day local election contests and candidates are rarely of sufficiently general interest to attract much serious fixed odds betting.

My prompt was the Conservatives’ recourse to their apparently hastily conceived Campaign Plan C – following the failures of A: negative, personal and increasingly counter-productive attacks on Ed Miliband; and B: daily, unexplained and increasingly implausible financial treats for everyone from NHS patients and rail users to volunteers and better-off housing association tenants.

Plan C involves drawing on – or alarmingly, in the latter case, ‘weaponising’ – the proven, if contrasting, electioneering skills of famous grey man, soapbox campaigner and former PM, John Major, and safe seat candidate and London Mayor, Boris Johnson.

Let’s start with Johnson, the opening paragraph’s ‘conspicuous exception’. You can currently get odds of 33/1 both on his being the next London mayor and next Deputy Prime Minister, and a very short 1/50 on his becoming MP for Uxbridge and South Ruislip – which in itself gives a small hint of the huge growth in recent years of so-called novelty betting in general and political betting in particular.

We wagered over £1 million on Prince George’s arrival in 2013 and could well top that this time. Current shortest odds are on a blonde female, eventually named Alice, born on April 25, with 50/1 on triplets and 1000/1 on the hapless infant being named Boris. But royal births are peanuts compared to political betting. Bookies reckon we laid out £30 million on the 2010 election, £50 million on the Scottish independence referendum, and predict this election will be the first UK non-sports betting event to break £100 million.

With William Hill’s taking bets online of £200,000 and over the counter of £50,000 on a hung parliament – at 2/9 and 1/8 respectively – it suggests some clearly see it as an easy earner, and they could be right. The odds on these big bets may be short – £50,000 at 1/8 would win just £1 for every £8 staked, or £6,250 plus the returned stake. But that doesn’t necessarily make them unattractive compared, say, to the 8/1 (£8 for £1 staked) you could get on an improbable coalition involving the Scottish Nationalists.

The attractiveness of particularly these short odds bets obviously depends on whether you think the bookies can predict the results of election races as skilfully as they can horse races and football matches. Put another way, and the main topic of this blog: who are generally more reliable – pollsters or punters?

Step up, John Major, the country’s most electorally successful living Conservative, thanks to his historic triumph in the 1992 General Election. Averaged out, the then four main final polls put Labour ahead on 39%, the Conservatives on 38%, and projected a comprehensively hung parliament. Next day, Labour managed just 35%, while the Conservatives won nearly 43% and a Commons majority of 21 seats. Major became the only UK party leader ever to win 14 million votes – nearly a third more than Cameron in 2010 – a hung parliament was postponed for another 18 years, and ‘shy Tories’ had arrived as a pollster’s nightmare. For a young and still mistrusted polling industry it was a humiliating setback.

It has, as the current campaign daily demonstrates, recovered, grown, and evolved methodologically almost beyond recognition. At the same time, particularly with the proliferation of smaller parties, both polling and seat prediction have become considerably more hazardous. All political pollsters, however, are parts of large commercial companies. Screw up, and their other clients immediately know, so generally they’re highly rigorous and pretty good – provided you judge them reasonably.

They’re not predictors or forecasters. They take time-specific opinion snapshots, with different interrogatory cameras – some using online panels, some random digit phone dialling – of what they hope are politically as well as demographically representative samples of the whole electorate. But because they’re samples, mostly of between 1,000 and 2,000, not much more than 19 times in 20 will any single response be within 3 per cent (plus or minus) of what it would be, had the whole population been surveyed.

This means two things: first, roughly every 20th finding or poll will be outside that +/- 3 per cent margin of error; second, that ‘rogue poll’ will invariably attract more media attention than the rest put together.

That’s almost certainly what happened in the last fortnight of the Scottish referendum campaign. Of nearly 40 polls published between June and the September 18 polling day, only two put the Yes vote ahead. The coverage given to particularly the first of these polls was enough, though, to prompt all three major party leaders to panic in concert, rush up to Scotland, and make desperate vows and commitments they’re still regretting.

It doesn’t, though, explain why the averaged five final polls put the No vote on 49.2%, with a lead of just 4.2% – when the actual result was 55.3% to 44.7%, and a No lead of 10.6%. Poor methodology, very late change, shy No voters, whatever – the pollsters got it wrong.

And they got it as badly wrong – or, in fairness, their Israeli counterparts did – in this year’s perhaps most publicised elections: those in March to the Israeli Knesset, called early by Prime Minister and Likud Party leader, Benjamin Netanyahu.  The averaged seat projections of the final seven polls published before Israel’s five-day pre-election poll ban gave Likud 22 seats and its main opposition, Isaac Herzog’s two-party Zionist Union 26 – prompting newspaper headlines like the Daily Telegraph’s ‘Bye-bye for Bibi?’.

The three exit polls suggested that the four-point gap had been closed in the final few days’ campaigning, but none came anywhere near the actual result of a six-seat lead (30-24) to Likud/Netanyahu. In what is a 120-seat legislature, with 10 parties having at least five seats, forming a government is tricky, but, in these matters anyway, Israelis are more patient than we are, and the permitted 42 days have been extended to allow Netanyahu until May 6 to name his.

Those ‘Bye Bye, Bibi’ headlines, however, weren’t the only ones. Gambling sites and the more refined ‘prediction markets’ were giving Netanyahu “an 81% chance of being re-elected”, and offering the equivalent of fractional odds of 1/6 on his winning and 4/1on losing.

It could have been a replay of the Scottish referendum. Over that final ten days, while English politicians and pollsters were over-reacting, the betting odds, overwhelmingly predicting No throughout the campaign, hardly wobbled: around 7/2 against Yes, and 1/4 for No. Indeed, one firm paid out a six-figure sum on a No bet three days before polling day.

These cases of the betting industry having a better sense (no apologies; pun deliberate!) of what’s actually happening aren’t the exceptions that prove the rule; they are the rule – a rule, moreover, that’s logically to be expected. Pollsters ask about our voting intentions and opinions, whereas bookies and bettors focus only on results and outcomes. Above all, though, they back their judgement with their money. So watch the polls carefully, as the bookies do, but if in doubt, then, as Americans might say, follow the frogskins (greenbacks for the alliteratively inclined).

At the time of writing – Wednesday 22nd – there have been 11 new polls since last Thursday’s BBC1Opposition Leaders’ debate. Five put the Conservatives ahead in percentage votes, five Labour, and one had them tied on 34 per cent.  There have also been seven poll-based seat forecasts: five showing the Conservatives ahead, two Labour.

No division among the bookies, though. The best seat-number odds being offered on Labour by any of Oddschecker’s 24 bookmakers were 21/10, while the best on the Conservatives were 1/2. Next PM, though, is very different: Miliband was 3/4 and shortening; Cameron 11/8 and drifting – rather like his party’s campaign.

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.

Queen Cersei and the evaporating Revenue Support Grant

Chris Game

Next week is the last week of Hilary Term, or revision week at the end of Spring Term, as it’s known here at the UoB and most other universities who feel no great affinity to the probably inappropriately named 4th Century St Hilarius of Poitiers. Over the many years in which I lectured undergraduates, I used rather to like it: end of the course/module in sight, legitimate chance to share and spread gossip about approaching local elections, lecture attendances boosted by students desperate for exam hints. Plus, nowadays, plenty of discussion-prompting visual aids – one of which is the pretext for this blog.

SIGOMA is not – disappointingly perhaps – an African hip-hop band, but less catchily the Special Interest Group of Municipal Authorities (outside London) within the Local Government Association. Yes, even the brackets are part of the full name – which has to convey that its 45-council membership comprises most major urban authorities in the North, some in the Midlands, plus the ‘South Coast regions’ of Plymouth and Portsmouth. The 45, claim SIGOMA, share similar characteristics and can therefore advantageously speak with a collective voice – moreover, with one that, particularly following the Coalition’s changes to the local government funding system, needs to be distinctive from that of the LGA with its responsibility for somehow representing the interests of all its 400+ member authorities.

These funding changes, argues SIGOMA, are so divisive, and their impacts so damaging to areas with characteristics like those of its members, that they threaten to set region against region in the manner of – well, Game of Thrones.  As even non-followers of the popular TV series may be aware, the US fantasy drama chronicles the violent dynastic struggles for control of the Iron Throne of the Seven Kingdoms of Westeros. SIGOMA’s spoof YouTube video is Game of Cuts Winter is Coming for Councils – and, at under 2½ minutes to Game of Thrones’ soon-to-be-five seasons, it’s inevitably (even) less subtle.

The Sean Bean character, Lord ‘Ned’ Starp, Warden of the North (possibly Steve Houghton, Leader of Barnsley MBC, SIGOMA’s administrative base?) and his mate from the Coastal Ports, protest that “our people are already on their knees … the sick have no one to care for them, and our children nowhere to read …”, while the spokesperson for “the hamlets of Bucks and Berks” remonstrates that they too are suffering, with “not enough funding to keep our tables supplied with swan and game”.  But sadistic Queen Cersei of the South and her incest-conceived son, King Joffrey, are unmoved: “All the regions have had to make their sacrifices. The money has been spread evenly and you will cope, for the sake of the Seven Kingdoms”.

Doubtless, Local Government Minister Kris Hopkins’ family arrangements are altogether more conventional, but his presentation of the 2015-16 finance settlement last December suggests similarly briefed scriptwriters:

“The local government settlement is fair to all parts of the country – north and south, rural and urban, city and shire – therefore every council should be able to deliver sensible savings while protecting frontline services for local taxpayers … Those facing the highest demand for services continue to receive substantially more funding. For example, Middlesbrough has a spending power per household of £2,441 which is £871 more than the £1,570 per household in Windsor and Maidenhead.”

As noted in my recent blog assessing that settlement this has been the standard – and increasingly disingenuous – government line for the past five years. That blog, though, was largely about ministers’ ploy – what one might call the ‘spending power sleight of hand’ – to mislead the media and public from the outset about the true severity of their cuts to the funding of the local government sector as a whole.  SIGOMA’s current campaign – Protecting Vital Services – is about the discriminatory distribution of the cuts within the sector, and particularly the impact of the funding changes since 2013-14, which cumulatively have switched the determination of government funding from assessed needs formulae to councils’ tax-raising capacity.

The big change was the introduction of the Business Rates Reduction Scheme (BRRS). It was cautiously welcomed by local government for its devolutionary principle, but SIGOMA-profile authorities were immediately concerned that, as BRRS funding increased and Revenue Support Grant (RSG) correspondingly decreased, the big gainers would inevitably be already prosperous authorities with higher rate-raising capacities, and the gap between them and the less well-off with the highest demand for services would continue to grow.

The New Homes Bonus Scheme (NHB) story was not dissimilar. It was launched in 2011-12 to incentivise local authorities to grant planning permissions for new homes and bring empty properties back into use. For each additional home they would receive for six years an annual bonus payment equal to the council tax generated – from the government’s own funding. Again, it was cautiously welcomed, although it was obvious that authorities with higher banded housing would be the bigger beneficiaries. But no sooner was it established than the government funding bit switched to a top-slicing of RSG, and again poorer authorities have been absolute, rather than just relative, losers.

The Council Tax Freeze Grant was slightly different, in being from the beginning a disadvantageous bribe to councils to cut their spending, but its relevance in this context is that it too is top-sliced from RSG. Put just these three policies together over the three most recent finance settlements, and RSG – the principal source of central government funding of non-schools revenue expenditure and traditionally the mechanism for recognizing councils’ differing resource needs – has shrunk as a proportion of local government funding by over 5% a year.

Chart Game blog

SIGOMA calculates that over just these three years authorities with higher grant dependency and greater formula share in RSG have lost proportionately twice as much (around 20%) as those with more buoyant rates bases and greater protection within RSG (around 10%).

Incidentally, further confirmations of deprived areas suffering most harshly from the government’s cuts have been produced over the past few weeks alone in an Institute for Fiscal Studies Briefing Note, by the Association of North East Councils, and, most tellingly, in evidence from the DCLG itself in the Public Accounts Committee’s report on the Financial Sustainability of Local Authorities (paras 8ff.).

Game of Cuts doesn’t go into the intricacies of RSG that SIGOMA’s Protecting Vital Services study does, confining itself to the billboard-style message that “Since 2010 local government in England has lost more than 40% of its core funding. Urban authorities, largely in the North and the Midlands, have lost the most money as a result of these cuts.” You don’t get SIGOMA’s proposed ‘fair and sustainable’ three-block future funding model either, but both productions, in their very contrasting ways, are worth a look – even if you don’t have a bunch of students to entertain.

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.

Grubby-handed local politicians? It’s called local democracy and devolution, Sarah!

Chris Game

The BBC’s Radio 4 Today programme isn’t what Americans would call a Hot Talk show, and nicely spoken presenter Sarah Montague, even in her own fantasies, is no shock jock. So listeners must have been slightly surprised to hear her, while questioning the proposed devolution of NHS funding to Greater Manchester’s combined authority, talk of “local politicians sticking their grubby hands into the decision-making process” (07.50).

She tried laughing it off and rephrasing, but it was already out there – an unintended confirmation of the dismissiveness with which so much of our London-centric media treat sub-central government. For them, it’s apparently a world too complicated to try to understand and explain; one in which every small service variation is a product not of local democratic choice, or the Lyons Report’s ‘managed difference’ (p.3) – but a ‘postcode lottery’ and thus an easy cue with which to stir up listener and viewer outrage.

With Scotland and Devo Manc putting down serious markers and new combined authorities springing up seemingly every week, English devolution will be a major issue at and following the General Election, whether parties and voters want it or not.

Voters, we know, aren’t clamouring for it. A YouGov/Prospect poll just after last September’s Scottish referendum presented a large sample of English voters with a list of 18 specific things Britain’s government might do over the next few years, and asked them which four or five they felt were the most important.

Probably unsurprisingly, tightening immigration rules came first, favoured by 55%, then providing more money for the NHS and holding down gas/electricity prices. “Giving more powers to English regions and local councils” came 17th, just 12% according it any importance at all.  Unpromising, but, unlike England’s cricket World Cup campaign, there are some definite positives out there.

First, as many local authorities used to find when they could still afford to commission annual surveys of residents’ views, councils and councillors generally have a better image, not only than Westminster and Whitehall, but than they themselves sometimes realise.

The Local Government Association (LGA) still does undertake such surveys, its most recent, by Populus last October, broadly confirming previous findings. Around 70% say they’re satisfied with their own council, and, asked who they’d trust most to make decisions about how services are provided in their local area, 72% said councillors, 11% MPs, and 7% government ministers.

But that’s the easy bit. These encouraging levels of satisfaction and trust relate to councils’ currently very constrained tax powers and policy discretion. They quickly dissipate when it’s suggested those powers be extended or more strategic service decisions be made locally.

The YouGov/Prospect poll also asked its English respondents at which level – England-wide, regional, local – decisions on ten services should be made. For six services the choice was overwhelmingly national, including VAT and unemployment benefit rates, the core curriculum, and NHS drug and hospital treatments. Refuse collection frequency was the only decision even a bare majority (53%) allocated to local councils, and 38% wanted even that to be national or regional.

This English predisposition towards uniform national standards in almost everything can seem extreme, but it clearly runs deep and is well documented.  A 2012 YouGov survey for the Institute of Public Policy’s Future of England report asked a similar question: whether certain policies should be the same across the whole of England or should be matters for local authorities to decide.

Again, as shown in the chart, there wasn’t a single service – refuse collection, planning approvals, housing, museums and galleries – that a majority of respondents saw as a chiefly local government responsibility.

Game blog pic

It’s perfectly possible, even reasonable, to suggest that differently worded questions would elicit different answers; that, if you put respondents in a focus group, presented them with evidence, and let them think for more than five seconds before answering, they’d change their minds; even that, dammit, they’re just wrong. The fact remains that this is what they instinctively think and say, and it presents an unignorable hurdle for would-be devolvers, especially politicians. There are signs, though, that at least the height of the hurdle is adjustable.

Returning to the recent YouGov/Prospect survey, although, refuse collection excepted, there was no service on which respondents came near to preferring local to England-wide decision-making, the picture changed a bit when regional and local preferences were combined.

Put brutally, it’s ‘local councils’ – the label, the actuality, or both – that aren’t trusted with anything more than our rubbish. Combine them with ‘regional level’, and there are clear majorities for the sub-national determination of strategic policing priorities (64%), siting of new towns and major new housing projects (60%), and rules governing social housing rents (52%).

Interestingly, there were some arguably similar findings in the surveys of Londoners and ‘London business decision-makers’ by ComRes in January.  In both surveys there were majorities (56% and 60% respectively) in favour of “Local Government having greater control in London over tax levels and how those taxes are spent”.

It quickly turned out that the tax levels most respondents had in mind were limited to business rates and stamp duty land tax. Nor was there anything remotely approaching majority support for even business rates being set by ‘local borough councils’. But again, combine local and ‘regional’ tiers – in this case the boroughs and Greater London Authority/’City Hall’ – and majorities in both samples (58% and 73% respectively) were in favour of ‘Local Government in London’ setting business rates, with over a third in each case prepared to add stamp duty land tax as well.

All of which seems to suggest that, in a future of large, and in some cases almost regional-scale, combined authorities, committed devolvers have at least something positive to work with – provided, of course, media presenters keep their grubby centralist hands out of the debate.

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.