Conservatives despise local government. English local authorities have been starved of funds since the coalition government began, with a sharper downward curve since 2015. The one-size fits-all model of elected mayors has been imposed on successive ‘city regions’ – in the case of Yorkshire, against the settled preference of almost all the local authorities in the region. Worst of all, ministers bypassed local authorities when the pandemic struck, ignoring local public health officers and the local knowledge that councillors and staff embody, and spending huge amounts of money on contracts with outsourcing companies. When Russian spies poisoned the Skripals Salisbury’s public health officer efficiently led the complex response. But ministers ignored that lesson when COVID-19 struck.
The Test and Trace scandal is potentially one of the worst that Britain has suffered since the war. £37bn has been committed over two years, with £23bn spent so far. Let’s put that into context. The total estimated cost of renewing the UK’s nuclear deterrent is £30bn.. The Department of Transport’s annual budget for England in 2020-21 is £16.6bn. £23bn is almost 10% of the annual central government transfer to local authorities, spent on a project that local authorities could have provided for a fraction of the cost. We do not yet know how much excess profit the contractors made, but we do know that the scheme has so far been less effective than in comparable countries – and that it would have been more effective, as well as far less expensive, if it had been run by local government.
Remember all those volunteers who came forward – and who were often ignored? And those small companies that offered to provide PPE for local hospitals, whose proposals were forwarded to central government and then left unanswered? It’s a mark of how far the careerists who run today’s Conservative Party are from politics on the ground that it did not occur to them to use the resources of local government and communities rather than exorbitant consultants and multinational companies.
The National Audit Office has just published a highly critical report on central government’s attitude to local government finance in the pandemic. It notes that a rising number of Councils are in danger of ‘financial failure’, that sources of income have withered and business rates shrunk, while the government has doled out emergency funds only on a short-term basis – making budgetary planning ahead impossible. Worse, packages of funding have been awarded on a competitive basis, with criteria bent to favour Conservative constituencies over others – which comes close to political corruption.
Rather than tackle the reform of local taxation and the financing of social care, ministers have forced Councils not only to raise Council Tax but also to bear the weight of additional funding for social care. 60% of this year’s rise in Council Tax is due to the social care precept. So Councils will be blamed by their voters for higher rates, without being able to allocate much money to other local services.
I hope our campaigns at local level will go hard at Conservative candidates for their support for a party which is gradually destroying local government. Popular disillusion with democracy in the UK – above all in England – is fuelled by the distance between voters and politicians, with so many decisions decided in Whitehall and Westminster without reference to local conditions or wants.
It’s a Liberal principle that decisions should be taken as close to the people they affect as possible. Westminster Tories see local governments as agents for central rule. Even when thinking of sending some civil servants out of London, sections of central departments are to be parcelled out. Cameron abolished the regional centres of government, and his successors are determined to resist any devolution of authority and finance within England. Elected city mayors outside London have little influence or autonomy, as Andy Burnham in Manchester has discovered.
We are the party of local democracy. This Conservative Party is the party of pluto-populism, distracting a passive and disillusioned electorate with imperial nostalgia and culture wars. Can we persuade voters that they need stronger local democracy, against a government that is reducing local authorities to providers of minimal services dependent on selective patronage from ministers in Whitehall?
* Lord Wallace of Saltaire is a Liberal Democrat member of the House of Lords. He has taught at Manchester and Oxford Universities and at the LSE.