Government needs to be closer to residents
All politicians seem to subscribe to the idea of localism. Rather like
“motherhood and apple pie” it is something that by definition is
regarded as good and much lip-service is paid to the concept. Looked
at more closely, however, much of what has been done in the name
of localism, such as attempts to regionalise the United Kingdom, have
actually removed power further away from the individual and rather
increased the tiers of government and bureaucracy.
What then, is the true localist agenda? Our existing system of
local government in this country is in the process of being tinkered
with via the setting up of a number of unitary councils. Much of
the debate about localism on the Right has focussed on the role
of county councils, while the Government has looked to increase
the regional structure on the one hand and devolve power to
parish councils, the smallest forum of local government, on the
other. In this article I intend to concentrate on that more overlooked,
but very much frontline form of local government, the district council.
To be clear, when I am referring to district councils I am talking
about rural district or borough councils within the two-tier local-government
system, as distinguished from unitary borough or district
councils. It is my argument that the two tier system is more democratic,
more accountable and more local.
Coming from a Centre-Right standpoint, I regard localism as a
means of bringing power closer to the individual so that individuals
can have more choice over how they are governed and how public
services are delivered. If Government is more receptive to individual
choices it will by definition be more accountable.
District councils are of a small enough scale to be more responsive
than counties or unitaries and are still able to deliver effectively
because they employ their own bureaucracy. Unfortunately, districts,
like other tiers, have been more and more restricted by central and
European diktat that undermines the concept of local representatives
making local decisions. To address this, the Government should
abandon its plans for more unitary authorities and free local authorities
from central control.
In terms of its localist credentials, the United Kingdom’s system of local
government does not score well. The United Kingdom has one of the
lowest numbers of councillors per 100,000 voters in Europe. Compared
to a country such as France, where one mayor can represent
around 350 voters, the United Kingdom looks less democratic in a
Where councils are strongest are where their local accountability makes them responsive to local residents needs and wishes in the deliveryof frontline services. A smaller council is less bureaucratic and more democratic, because the councillors are known by their voters and have a smaller officer body to steer. The alternative to more local delivery by delivering services from the centre is likely to be cheaper, but it will be less responsive to the demands of the electors. In the drive for efficiency, centralisation undermines choice. I feel the balance should be on the side of greater choice for residents. If choice is the driver, then local authorities will act more like private companies in their delivery of services. They will be sensitive to the wishes of their consumers.
As any neo-classical economist knows, central planning is less
responsive to local and individual demands and undermines diversity
A smaller council is less bureaucratic and more democratic, because the councillors are known by their voters and have a smaller officer body to steer and competition of different models. A useful real-life example of district councils being innovative and responsive in their delivery of their
services is Tandridge District Council’s waste contract.
Tandridge has negotiated a contract that fulfils the residents’ preference
for a back-door waste collection. It may be that this front-line
service is more expensive, but it is what the users of the service prefer
to pay for. Were the waste collection service delivered county wide
or across a section of the county on a unitary basis, it would be far
more difficult to respond to the preferences of Tandridge residents.
In a predominantly rural district, with an aging population, a backdoor
service works and is preferred by council-tax payers. A service
deliverer that covered a wider area would have to reach for the lowest
common denominator, where different needs had to be addressed,
for example urban versus rural.
Another general argument for services being delivered by smaller
bodies is that it enables alternative methods to be tested. The larger
the organisations, the fewer are the opportunities for experiment. Innovation
is more likely and better methods are more likely to be tried out
if there are more service deliverers.
Another key area of innovation that enables district councils to learn
from one another and adopt best practice is joint-working. This brings
the advantage of economies of scale without the loss of local autonomy
or responsiveness to voters’ preferences.
Are unitary authorities the solution?
To remain true to the spirit of localism it must be right to accept that
unitaries are the right answer in some cases but not others. It all
depends on the local circumstances on the ground. For example, a
city such as Plymouth is naturally a unit with a clear identity, but a
County such as Cornwall is diverse and the unpopularity of the
moves towards a unitary authority demonstrates that a keen sense
of local identity works against single tier authorities that cover a
The argument for unitaries usually put forward is that service delivery
works better if there is one organisation delivering. It is not
resident-friendly and can be very confusing if one authority is responsible
for one service and another for other services. Waste is a clear
example of this, where districts are responsible for waste collection
and counties for waste disposal.
That may well be the case, but it does not undermine the central
point that the more local the level of service delivery the more responsive
it is. Rather than a definite argument for unitaries, this point could
be employed to argue that more frontline services, such as road maintenance
could be devolved to districts.
Where unitaries undermine localism they are a step in the wrong
direction. For example, prima facie it must be the case that reducing
the number of local councillors reduces democracy and accountability.
This is usually the result when districts and counties are replaced
Another argument in favour of local-government reorganisation
often put forward is the savings that will be made. The jury really still
is out on this though. As I understand it, too often the creation of
unitary councils has been far more expensive than originally expected.
Local government reorganisation can prove a costly exercise.
As mentioned above, many of the advantages of amalgamating
tiers of local government can be achieved by joint working with other
councils. This can achieve all the advantages of working together,
achieving best practice and making substantial savings without the
cost, both financial and democratic of moving towards one tier.
What’s wrong with the present system?
In short the answer to this is not enough localism and too much topdown
decision making. Much ink has been spent on why powers
should be devolved back to county councils and the arguments are
well rehearsed, but it is also the case that district councils operate
within a straitjacket set up by central government. A culture of topwww.
down targets, ring-fenced grants and negative subsidising has led to
a situation where local councillors are often in a position of simply
implementing central government policy. This undermines local
accountability and means that the local councillor is often viewed as
To take one key example, when voters elect their local councillor onto the local planning authority, they expect that they will be represented. Instead they find that local councillors must give more weight to government policy statements than their own local planning policies and if they do defy the thrust of central government policy to meet their
own local needs, they may well find themselves overridden by the planning inspectorate.
The disadvantage of local decisions being overridden in planning
matters is that it allows the local councillors to take decisions while
avoiding consequences. For example it can mean a populist stance
is taken and then the blame laid on the inspector when he overturns
the decision; alternatively, councillors can rely too much on what an
inspector is likely to do when making their decision and thereby overlook
local needs. It is important to emphasise that local councillors
usually work very well within these constraints, but when decisions are
overturned residents understandably ask, “what is the point in a local
planning authority if the centre has the final say?”
If local councillors were given greater responsibility for their decisions
it would actually work against the so-called “NIMBY”
temptation. Councillors would not simply be able to play to the
gallery when they knew for example that an unpopular affordable
housing estate needed to be built. Greater power would mean real
responsibility being taken and would make local councillors more
accountable. Voters would feel that there was far more point to voting
in local elections if the representatives they elected had real power to
A similar example of the present problem of over-centralisation is in
the realm of housing policy. The local housing authority has very
limited autonomy. Most of what it is responsible for is in effect dictated
by central government guidelines. For example, rent increases in
council accommodation rent-increases are now required by government
guidance to converge with the rents of housing associations. A
recent decision to lower the level of increase because of the economic
climate was initiated by central government.
The issue of rent increase was once a matter of genuine debate in
town halls up and down the land. It was an emotive issue on which
local representatives could vote according to their political principles.
Now the level of debate is very limited because, in reality, there is
very little local autonomy.
Although central government only issues guidance, it rewards those
housing authorities that follow the guidance on rents and penalises
those who do not follow the guidelines via the subsidy mechanism.
Central government relies on the subsidy mechanism in a number of
ways to control local housing policy.
The most inimical aspect to localism of the subsidy system is negative
subsidy. This is where local housing authorities that manage their
housing stock well and thereby, according to government calculations
should be in surplus, are required to pay money from their housing
revenue accounts to central government.
A genuinely local policy on transferring or retaining stock is also
very difficult to maintain. Local authorities are required to ballot
tenants on stock transfer. If councils cannot afford to meet the government
requirement of decent homes standard, they are put in a
position where they have little choice but to transfer the stock.
It might be asked why it is a bad thing that local housing authorities
are cajoled into increasing the living standards of their tenants. Of
course no reasonable man or woman would oppose improvements in
living standards on the grounds of a political theory. If local accountability
is taken away however, then it becomes far more difficult for the
local councillor to champion the cause of tenants in his or her ward or
for the tenants to truly hold their social landlord to account. For
example, if the decent homes standard requires one piece of work to
be carried out and the demand from tenants is for another more pressing
piece of work, the local need must fall subject to the central,
uniform perspective. Centrally-imposed solutions mean less opportunity
for local solutions truly applicable to the specific needs of the
The goal of localism must surely be what European treaties refer to as
subsidiarity i.e. allowing decisions to be made at the lowest possible
level. For local authorities to have real autonomy top-down targets
must be drastically curtailed and local authority funding must be
looked at again. Power should be devolved not to new quangos at a
regional level or parish councils with no bureaucracy to implement
local wishes, but to the district level as seen in the two tier system.
There can be no real freedom for local authorities, without reform
of local government funding. The more local councils are responsible
for their own funding, the more they can be held to account, rather
than simply competing to spend more and larger government grants.
For this reason the national non-domestic rates, or business rates,
should be retained at least in part by local authorities. This would
also encourage local authorities to promote economic growth, as their
revenue would increase with the number of businesses.
The argument of this article is that district councils are in the frontline
of democracy and therefore most responsive to local pressures.
Given the greater number of district councillors and the smaller wards
it is easier for voters to recognise and interact with them. The district
councillor is usually in the heart of a small community and is usually
When the district councillor is at work he or she is dealing with a
much smaller officer body and therefore councillor influence over the
direction of council policy can penetrate any officer cadre that might
exist. Larger bodies are far more difficult to penetrate as the elected
member is faced by a large bureaucracy. Ironically this can mean that
councillors on larger councils do not have a strategic overview and find
themselves only able to concentrate on small-scale ward level problems.
The democratic steer of the overall direction is therefore weak.
Districts are of a size with a small enough officer staff for members
to have a truly strategic influence that is responsive to the direction
that their voters feel the community should be heading. Therefore
voters have more of a say about how they are governed.
In terms of participation in democracy, districts because of their
size, if freed from central control, are the right level to increase
engagement. Furthermore, by dint of the fact that there are more councillors
there are inevitably more activists engaged in the political
process, such as delivering literature, canvassing, knocking up on
All these ways of being involved increase engagement
with the voter. The fact that districts provide more volunteers directly
engaged is in itself a way of involving more people in politics.
On this basis, the possibility of devolving more services to the district
council should be looked at. At one time district councils were responsible
for highways, why not return this responsibility? If education were to be the responsibility of district councils rather than the county, councillors accountable to a smaller
number of voters could have a much greater voice over issues affecting the schools in their ward. It would probably be necessary for the building to remain in the ownership of the
county councils, but the delivery of education could become the responsibility
of the less remote, more local district council.
These are but a few suggestions. The main point is that if we truly
believe in localism, those local authorities that have more localist credentials
should be given more responsibilities. Rather than creating
new tiers of government at a higher level and giving them an overall
say on local issues, true devolution is about freeing the existing local
councils that for too long have often only been able to act as rubber
stamps for central government policy.
Please find the full pamphlet at: http://www.localis.org.uk/images/articles/Localis-One%20Tier%20or%20Two_.pdf