Copied from Local Government Chronicle online
Members ’embarrassed’ by minister’s Europe approach
13 June, 2014 | By David Paine
Ministers have been criticised for dismissing a critical European peer review of local democracy in the UK.
After two fact-finding visits last year, the Council of Europe’s Congress of Local and Regional Authorities expressed concern about the financial resources of English local authorities, as well as their limited tax-raising powers and their dependence on government grants.
Its review also highlighted concerns about the limitations placed on local authorities in managing local affairs, due to interventions from central government.
Local government minister Baroness Stowell (Con) forcefully rejected the review’s recommendations in a speech made to the congress in March.
“Our greatest disagreement with the report is the underlying theme that local government, particularly in England, has insufficient funding, with a suggestion that there should be more local revenues,” she said.
“That is saying, and let’s not be shy about this, there should be more local taxes.”
At a meeting of the LGA’s executive board yesterday, outgoing chair Sir Merrick Cockell (Con) expressed regret at the response and added he thought ministers should have “accepted there are some areas that need improvement and they are of a mind to move in that direction”.
He added: “I was bitterly disappointed by that approach.”
John Warmisham (Lab), lead member for children’s services at Salford City Council and head of the UK delegation to the congress, said: “Just to say outright ‘no’ was for me, as a UK delegate and a councillor, embarrassing.”
He added: “I find it appalling to be honest.”
Referring to Baroness Stowell’s speech, Sue Murphy (Lab), Manchester City Council’s deputy leader, said: “It was one of the worst ministerial performances I have seen in my entire career in politics. Really, I thought it was insulting.”
The executive was told that the UK was, in general, in compliance with the obligations taken under the Charter of Local Self-Government, to which the UK government is a signatory, and that compared with the last evaluation in 1998 the situation had improved, especially in relation to lifting audit and inspection burdens on councils.
However, Andreas Kiefer, secretary general of the congress, told councillors at the LGA executive meeting: “We consider the UK a model of democracy so to find the reluctance to give local democracy the status that it has in other countries was surprising.”