Liam Booth-Smith

A Commission Too Far?

February 20, 2015


The Independent Commission on Local Government Finance is right to call for councils to become financially self-sufficient. It makes a number of sensible and helpful recommendations, particularly those that relate to the removal of the council tax referendum limits and devolving power to local authorities to decide who receives council tax support. And yet despite the obvious positive noises coming from the report, I have mixed feelings.

You see there are two emergent perspectives being offered by local government’s intelligentsia as to what posture to adopt when confronting the next phase of change in local public services. On one side you have the ‘get stuck in’ argument being advanced by the likes of Simon Parker at the New Local Government Network. The short hand case being that if we wait for central government to support and/or fund a programme of change that satisfies the sectors actual appetite, we’ll be waiting forever.

On the other side there are those who have a ‘patrician perspective’ and believe we need to create change from within the boundaries of the current system. Their argument being that bringing the Whitehall machine with you is important to solve the long standing structural issues that are inherent in a central/local relationship. I’d place the commission in this group. It’s not that I necessarily believe that anyone involved with it considers this the only way to create change but rather that the commissions remit forces their hand. The central/local relationship is in large part defined by the flow of money from one to the other.

It’s on the fundamental issue of the approach that I become disconnected from the commissions’ work. The executive summary starts with the line “The problems with the local government finance system have been considered by a number of reviews over the last 50 years” and states that over that time the “issues have remained largely the same.” Surely this points to an inherent problem with attempting to force this type of change via this means? (There is an important issue about financial decentralisation and turkeys voting for Christmas here that many before me have made.)The arguments for devolution, whilst bolstered by an expanding base of evidence have remained largely the same since 1976; local decision making tends to reflect local needs more accurately generating better outcomes for those concerned with the added benefit that local government is very good at doing this in an efficient and cost effective way. In short, if every commission we’ve had so far hasn’t cracked it, did we really need this one?

If you’re patrician minded then the construction of an argument built to convince Whitehall and senior civil servants that this agenda is one worth pushing as a central policy goal of an incoming government is the whole ball game. The two paragraphs tacked onto the end of the report suggest that the commissioners recognised the need for this too but couldn’t quite get there. (As an aside I’d like to have seen the final report of a commission from a ‘get stuck in’ perspective.) We’ve been doing this for 50 years. I’m struggling to see how a commission whose first recommendation is for another commission is going to break the deadlock. However, I sincerely hope to be proved wrong.

The commission document includes excellent analysis and is well put together so this isn’t a criticism of the work, merely a reflection on the strategic value of the approach.

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