Fringe Box



Letter: Perhaps We Should Come Clean and Call It Local Administration not Government

Published on: 9 Aug, 2023
Updated on: 10 Aug, 2023

From: Bernard Quoroll

Former local authority CEO and independent person at GBC

In response to: If Councils Had the Power to Raise Local Taxes…

It is true that the power to raise local taxes would help to legitimise local government but Ben Paton’s anxieties deserve further comment.

Firstly, recent poor scrutiny of local government finances is a direct result of the abolition of the Audit Commission by Margaret Thatcher, (reputedly because she disliked its then chief executive). Guildford Council seems to have gone one stage further by denuding itself of senior finance staff as part of a failed restructuring but in my experience, few councils are unwise enough to do that to themselves.

Secondly, it is also true that councils generally would benefit by developing their project management skills but that is true of the wider public sector. If you want some recent examples, look at HS2, how Covid procurement was handled, or the backlog in processing asylum claims.

From Victorian times, councils have successfully conceived and implemented great projects. Manchester drove a canal to the sea to compete with Liverpool, many local airports have been built, even new towns have been constructed using special-purpose vehicles.

One purpose of central government is to redistribute taxes collected centrally to ensure fairness between communities with widely varying differences in wealth and opportunity. If a project has more than a local benefit, councils know how to work with their neighbours and with central government to combine their skills and resources.

One problem with the current system of redistribution is that it is not transparent. Extra resources seem to find their way too easily to councils of the same political persuasion as the government of the day.

Thirdly, why is it the job of local councillors to undertake “local fundraising”? The job of councillors is to assess need and acceptability, then fix the rate of taxes. They have been doing that for centuries.

The job of paid officials is to design and implement the systems for collection. One thing that councils have traditionally been good at is tax collection, (except during the dark period of the Poll Tax which local government advised was not collectable). Indeed, District councils were successfully developing and using mainframe computers to collect taxes long before banks and other institutions.

Of course, no one wants to pay higher taxes and a referendum so crudely put could be expected to have only one outcome. The resourcing of local services is hugely more complex. It cannot be addressed by a single magic bullet.

That is why I would argue for a more comprehensive reexamination of the relationship between central and local government and their respective tax-raising powers, in order to achieve a better balance. Governments of all persuasions have promised to do this in the past but always found it too difficult.

Central taxes redistributed to local government used to cover around a third of their expenditure. Removing that money has created a crisis for most councils. When business rates are added to the mix, the logic for a comprehensive reexamination of all sources of funding and their transparency becomes in my view irrefutable and urgent.

And finally, please do not judge local government by the actions of a few small councils. The best councils, of which there are many, can hold their own with the very best in the private sector. Sadly, many are being rewarded by having their resources peremptorily removed by the government of the day.

Perhaps we should come clean and call it “local administration” not local government.

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Responses to Letter: Perhaps We Should Come Clean and Call It Local Administration not Government

  1. David Roberts Reply

    August 10, 2023 at 11:31 am

    It was Cameron, not Thatcher, who abolished the Audit Commission in his 2015 “bonfire of the quangos”, which was premised on the populist notion that he was getting rid of “red tape”. With predictable results, councils have been allowed to mark their own homework ever since, with no national scrutiny or enforcement of ethical standards.

  2. Bernard Quoroll Reply

    August 10, 2023 at 1:17 pm

    It was actually Eric Pickles who wielded the axe, but signs of its impending demise were brewing long before then. Ironically the commission was invented by Michael Heseltine with the agreement of Margaret Thatcher, originally as a means of keeping recalcitrant local government under control.

    It quickly became viewed as too “lefty” for its own good, especially after it expanded its remit beyond audit and into value for money and performance assessment.

    By the time of its demise, it had earned the grudging respect of many councils for its leadership in promoting better management so when the axe came it was unexpected. For those interested in such arcane stuff the history if the commission reads like a good “whodunnit”!

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