Local government – something we used to have in the UK?

I am sure we would all agree with Cllr Sir Merrick Cockell, LGA Chairman, when he said last week:

“While this Budget has not brought further cuts for local government, it has not changed the fact that the next two years will be the toughest yet for people who use and rely upon the services which councils provide. The black hole in funding for local bus services, a £10.5 billion backlog in road repairs and continuing uncertainty over funding for much-needed reforms of the adult social care system have yet to be properly addressed.”

By next year, central government funding for councils will have been cut by 40 per cent during this Parliament.
If we are to avoid an upturn in the economy coinciding with a decline in public services, we need nothing less than a fundamental reform of the way the public sector works and an honest reappraisal of how public services are provided and paid for in post-austerity Britain.
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Add to all of this, the recent announcement that the government is looking at centralising children services in England, combined with the push for academy schools, both services currently delivered by county councils, and you could be forgiven for thinking that there’s a hidden ‘European’ agenda in play here.
The last labour government made an abortive attempt to up the game of parish councils, encouraging them to takeover the delivery of services that were being carried by district councils. As well as leading to the demise of two tier government in shire areas, the idea seemed to be about refocusing local people on to the parochial (very local) and away from greater than local issues, thereby strengthening the position of the then emerging regional government bodies.
The current government seems to be hell bent on a similar goal of undermining, or even eliminating local government at the district level and possibly county level, but without anything being put in place between the very local (parish) and national levels.
One can only suggest that the way things are done in many European countries, with village and town councils run by some form of mayor and looking after the basics, a regional government body at the next level and everything else controlled by the national government, is what all our MPs want, no matter what party they represent.

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Localism was always a con game

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Localism was nothing more than a sound bite, created for the benefit of the media. It was also designed to con an increasingly unhappy and non-voting public, in to thinking that things were going to change for the better, when it came to local decision making.

There can be little doubt that the public have now realised that they’ve been conned, but worryingly, they don’t actually seem to care that much. Using local elections, as a way of sending a message to the government of the day, is something of a tradition in this country and may well indicate the true feelings of the majority of people when it come to local government in general and their local councils in particular.

Perhaps it’s time for political parties to bow out of any further involvement in local government. Why not require all councils to run elections without any party political logos or emblems on the ballot papers, as in the case of parish councils?

Once elected, councillors would be required to form alliances in order to form an administration. Without party politics in the mix, the public would be required to focus on the performance of the people in charge and not the political party they belong to. This isn’t a plea for proportional representation by the way, as I don’t support that, given it’s continued linkage with Party based politics.

Those who chose to form alliances and work together,min order to get each other elected and subsequently form an administration, would still be elected on their own merit and the reputation they had gained with the local electorate, not just the fact that they belonged to a particular political party, that a particular element of the electorate supports come what may. It may be something of an exaggeration, but it is suggested that some dyed in the wool voters, would vote for a gate post as long as it had their Party’s emblem on it!

An added bonus from such a system, would be the dismantling of the political party associations. These tend to be made up of those who have to be in them by default, because they are standing for election under that particular party emblem. This requirement gives some prospective parliamentary candidates a standing workforce (in theory at least), that other, non-party political candidates, don’t enjoy. Breaking the link between MPs and local government, would probably be good for the democratic process in more way than we can imagine!

Now to the point of this post and an LGC comment that partially echoes a previous posting of mine.

Copied from Local Government Chronicle online

Why Labour should not support council tax referendums
Don’t sacrifice localism on the altar of spending restraint
20 March 2014 | By Nick Golding

So who doesn’t expect Ukip to be the big winner of the local government elections, which are being held on the same day as their European counterparts?

One of the main reasons that a party set up to oppose the European Union will win seats on numerous councils is that the electorate is indifferent to voting for candidates representing regular parties who may have local policies but lack the ability to implement them.

Central government imposes cuts on councils without regard to local need and councillors have seen their powers over issues such as planning and education whittled away to the point of impotence. With representative democracy looking this unhealthy, one can understand someone’s rationale for using the local elections to make a bold statement about an issue largely unrelated to local politics or indeed not voting at all.

So the question arises of how local democracy can be reinvigorated. It is clearly an issue shadow communities secretary Hilary Benn has given much contemplation.

In his LGC interview this week, Mr Benn proposes the extension of city deals to counties, ensuring power is devolved in more places, making it more worthwhile to vote in them. The same is true of his promise that councils will get a significant role in commissioning back-to-work schemes.

However, Mr Benn says Labour is likely to retain council tax referendums, forcing locally elected politicians to navigate a prohibitively expensive and risky hurdle if they seek to safeguard services by raising bills above an arbitrary limit imposed from afar by a minister. To date no council has successfully pursued this path.

Mr Benn says the impetus to keep bills low brought about by the referendum policy will help people suffering due to the “cost of living crisis”. While it is true that council tax bills cost people dear, so too do service cuts that have had their worst impact on society’s most vulnerable. And so do opportunities to drive growth that are missed because councils lack the resources to lead on projects to create jobs.

Eric Pickles regards the council tax referendum as a device to secure democracy. Well, if that is true, will the government commit to holding polls every time a decision is required on the expenditure it controls? More likely, ministers will argue their government is the democratic representative of the people, entrusted to make tough decisions on their behalf. The same argument applies to local government.

Councillors should take decisions on local public expenditure, facing grief at the ballot box if they prove unpopular. Referendums only muddy the waters of local democracy, introducing a semblance of people power which hinders representative democracy. The fact that they are only applicable to a minute portion of public expenditure – one of the few slithers of spending not centrally controlled – makes them a democratic illusion.

The council tax referendum is a bellwether issue when it comes to local democracy. In this case Labour has sacrificed localism on the altar of spending restraint.

Nick Golding, editor, LGC

Yet another Tory showing his utter disdain for Local Government

Axe town hall exec’
Council bosses will be swept out of town halls under radical plans by ministers. Unelected chief execs on six-figure salaries would be replaced by elected council leaders – saving taxpayers millions. The idea was pushed by Tory MP Andrew Griffiths.

In the same week a DCLG minister tells councillors that they don’t deserve to be in the Local Government Pension Scheme, because they are no more than community volunteers, a Tory MP wants councillors to replace chief executives – unbelievable!

NPPF additions, it’s becoming more and more like ‘guided’ planning

Following in the footsteps of the bovver booted Eric Pickles approach to Localism – called ‘guided Localism’, we are now seeing more and more ‘guided’ planning.

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Despite their claims that this government had swept away thousands of pages of planning guidance and regulation and replace it with a 52 page, clear and succinct document called the National Planning Policy Framework, we continue to see more and more detailed additional guidance being added to fill the huge holes in the planning system, created by the NPPF.

As an aside, the NPPF was never, ever only 52 pages, end of story. As soon as it was published, I went through it, checking for how many other documents were referred to in the numerous footnotes, detailed in the small print at the bottom of nearly every page. I stopped when I got to 1800 pages plus, as my suspicions had been confirmed. Admittedly, some of these footnotes have themselves been superceded, but the fact remains, that the NPPF was a con job.

This extract from the latest addition to the NPPF +, is tantalising to say the least, given the poor quality of the new housing currently being built. The full document can be viewed by following this link.

http://planningguidance.planningportal.gov.uk/blog/guidance/

Housing design issues
Well-designed housing should be functional, attractive and sustainable. It should also be adaptable to the changing needs of its occupants.

In well-designed places affordable housing is not distinguishable from private housing by its design, nor is it banished to the least attractive part of the site.

Consideration should be given to the servicing of dwellings such as the storage of bins and bikes, access to meter boxes, space for drying clothes or places for deliveries. Such items should be carefully considered and well designed to ensure they are discreet and can be easily used in a safe way.

Unsightly bins can damage the visual amenity of an area. Carefully planned bin storage is, therefore, particularly important. Local authorities should ensure that each dwelling is carefully planned to ensure there is enough discretely designed and accessible storage space for all the different types of bin used in the local authority area (for example landfill, recycling, food waste).

In terms of parking, there are many different approaches that can support successful outcomes, such as on-street parking, in-curtilage parking and basement parking. Natural surveillance of parked cars is an important consideration. Car parking and service areas should be considered in context to ensure the most successful outcome can be delivered in each case.

We don’t need a tilt, we need an earthquake

Balance of power tilts back towards councils, by Richard Garlick
14 March 2014 by Richard Garlick

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The planning minister struck a slightly penitent note when he was explaining his finalised planning practice guidance to the Daily Telegraph last week.

Nick Boles said that additions were being made to planning guidance in some areas where the National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF) was “not working as it should”.

The message to the Telegraph readers was clear: we are listening to your concerns about an NPPF-enabled development free-for-all, and we are taking steps to bring it under control.

It was the latest step ministers have taken to insulate the government from such criticisms. Only a few days earlier, Boles had written to complain about an inspector who had told Reigate & Banstead Borough Council to release green belt land, saying the latter “had invited misinterpretation of government policy”.

He can fairly argue that the finalised guidance will in some ways bolster local planning authorities’ control of development. But it would be an oversimplification to suggest that ministers are reaching for the reverse gear on their planning liberalisation.

Boles can argue that the guidance will bolster local controls on development
Alongside the guidance, Boles confirmed changes that will mean that in most places planning permission is no longer needed to convert shops outside key shopping areas, or agricultural buildings with a floor space of up to 450 square metres, into homes.

These are major incursions into local democratic control of development. What’s more, the guidance itself instructs planning authorities to leave no stone unturned in the struggle to make brownfield sites viable and competitive with greenfield alternatives.

Commentators have suggested that this will force councils to accept lower design standards on brownfield sites than elsewhere, as well as relinquishing any claim to deciding the scale of developer contribution necessary to provide the infrastructure needed to support the scheme. Boles may be bolstering councils on some fronts, but he continues to undermine them on others.

That said, the finalised guidance does offer genuine reinforcement for town halls.

No longer is it the government’s position that only “in exceptional circumstances” will applications be dismissed as premature in terms of prejudicing an emerging plan. Guidance now spells out that the duty to cooperate is not a “duty to accept”, and planning authorities are not obliged to meet their neighbours’ unmet needs. Unmet housing need is unlikely to constitute the “very special circumstances” needed to justify development in the green belt, the guidance says.

Not of all these provisions are major changes to the status quo. In some cases, the finalised guidance is confirming an approach that councils have already been arguing for successfully in front of inspectors, or which the secretary of state for communities and local government has been enforcing in call-ins. But, cumulatively, these and other measures in the guidance look likely to, in some sectors at least, slightly tip the balance of power back towards local authorities.

Richard Garlick, editor, Planning richard.garlick@haymarket.com.

How to Cure Nick Bole’s Hyperactivity

I think, in this case, you might also need to use drugs!

Decisions, Decisions, Decisions

Given the news that DCLG Minister Steven Williams has described Nick Boles as ‘hyperactive’ and ‘hated’ by Tory Mps I fear that poor ‘Bungalow’ Bob Kerslake and Steve ’70s porn star’ Quartermain may need some advice on how to cope with hyperactive boys.  No better advice than from the Daily Mail agony aunt.

The problem is that the term ‘hyperactivity’ is often used to describe excitable, naughty, restless or over-exuberant children. Needless to say, these are usually perfectly normal boys, whose behaviour and inattention come to light when challenged by the regime of  school [government] discipline and often overcrowded classrooms [offices at Eland House] …

you and his school [department] can try the following:

1. Have realistic expectations – avoid situations which may be impossible to cope with eg long assemblies or church services [meetings], protracted meals, double sedentary lessons.

2. Try not to criticise or make negative comments…

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