It’s not usually a topic of general conversation, yet local government is at a critical Covid-exacerbated cross-roads. Fork right and head towards complete abolition. Head straight on and continue down a path of fiscal and legal emasculation. Fork left and head towards rejuvenation. In this first post I explore the first two options.
The abolition scenario sees local government failing to survive the intensification of efforts from national government to see it deconstructed. It is already seen by many of those on the right as a failing delivery arm of central government and recent evidence, evidenced through the procurement scandals of PPE and consultancy during Covid-19, show that the private sector is seen as more financially and ideologically effective. Never mind that they are making profits off the most vulnerable in society.
During austerity Local Government has had its uses, particularly in being the closest to the very people budget cuts have most impacted, and thus also being seen by many as the source of those cuts, as though there was a choice. But now its elimination would solve some other challenges, not least of which is how to fund it.
Local business rates are an unsustainable form of taxation that Covid-19 has accelerated toward obsolescence. The closure of local businesses, the fate of anchor stores in malls and high streets and the growth of online trading challenge a financial model grounded in a bricks-and-mortar economy. The incentive of stimulating local economic growth through physical outlets in order to generate increased business rate revenue offers no option for the use of rate relief to stimulate such growth, nor does it provide any incentive to support the online economy.
Council Tax, more controversially, is outdated and compounds inequality; as it is based on house prices that are thirty years out of date it is deeply regressive. It has remained a political no-go area since its predecessor, the Poll Tax, brought down Thatcher.
There are some loud, local political voices, such as mayors of Greater Manchester, London or Bristol, and local government presents a co-ordinating focus for local politics and parties who can organise around local elections in between national ones. When viewed from Downing Street it becomes an inconvienence whose role is not only surplus to requirements but brings with it added complications. Easier, then, to continue to underfund local services until the point that Local Government, and it’s attendant problems, collapses under the weight of itself.
The emascluation scenario is a version of the above that proceeds through a ‘death by a thousand cuts’ strategy. One that sees its obsolescence arrive rather as the frog, placed into cold water that is slowly brought to the boil, never realises that it needs to jump out of the pan until it is too late. Council leaders and the LGA remain convinced that no national government will ever see local government fail and every vague government announcement of a funding pot here or a devolution deal there are latched onto with false hope of a new dawn.
Devolution itself is an unhelpful aspiration, reinforcing as it does notions of patriarchy and images of Oliver Twist asking for more. Why should local places have to negotiate powers away from central government by agreeing enhanced accountability to it; should not accountability be to the people we serve?
The continuation of piecemeal local government re-organisation across England, plans to ‘level up’ areas in the north and false competition over small funding pots – all in the wake of the worst health and economic crisis for generations – harks back to colonial strategies of divide-and-rule. This lack of any strategic approach to structural inequality is a perpetuation of such paternalism.