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Repeal the Local Government Act 2000

Comment 10th July 2010

Repeal all or a significant part of the LGA 2000. 

In particular, simplify the arrangements for the discharge of local government responsibilities and frame the legislation is such a way that there is a presumption of smaller or contracting local bureauracy.

Scrap all payments and expenses to local councillors.

Why does this matter?

The 2000 Act gave virtually unlimited scope for local authorities to do absolutely anything they wanted to, under the rather vague justification that it might benefit their area in some way. This has given some authorities, particularly the bigger metropolitan ones, scope to take get involved in far too many areas, such as entertainment and the arts, hospitality, publishing, for example.  The presence of the public sector in these areas damages innovation and competition in the private sector and introduces grossly unfair competition. It has also forced up wages generally as the private sector has to compete with the public sector for labour resources, and it is generally a costly outcome for the taxpayer.

In many ways, some of the bigger authorities are now little different from corporate multi-nationals, spending large sums on international travel for little apparent benefit to the taxpayer, behaving as if they were in the commercial world, focussed on revenue generation in all its forms from car parking fees and fines to competing for leisure spending, and none of this sits well with its role as a law-maker, enforcer, regulatory body or democratic forum for local communities.

The Act also created an extraordinarily complex system of local government, based on the Paliamentary model of 'executive' and 'backbenchers'.  This has created a 'two tier' class of councillors – those serving on the executive and 'ordinary' members.  The huge payments being made to councillors – upwards of £70,000 each for senior Members, but as much as £40,000 a year for any member of a Cabinet – is also grossly excessive and creates a situation where many councillors will not 'rock the boat' for fear of losing their generous income (in many cases far, far higher than they could earn in private employment).  It has also brought about a form of corruption, where families and party members are found 'safe' seats and then given 'chairs' of committees in order to increase their income.  All of this has deeply teinted local government, corrupted the representative arrangements and damaged local democracy.

The statutory responsibilities that have been heaped on local authorities in the last decade have also been of doubtful value or need. For example, there seems to be little rationale for having given local authorities a scrutiny role in healthcare for their area.  This simply adds yet another layer of non-clinical cost for the NHS for no benefit whatever. Many authorities have merged education and social services departments into huge 'Childrens Services' with very highly paid officers running them, but the reality is that it is almost impossible to find people in local government with sufficient knowledge, experience and skills to properly run social services and education well. Harringey and Doncaster were accidents waiting to happen in this regard, but several other authorities have also had 'near misses' with dysfunctional childrens services arrangements.

All in all, there needs to be a root and branch review of local government with the aim of drastically slimming it down, separating out its role as a law-making body and democratic forum from any involvement in commercial activities, and removing as far as is possible all financial interest at an individual level and at a corporate level which would tend to distort, corrupt or unreasonably influence decision-making.  A good example of that at a corporate level would be the functioning of Local Planning Authorities, where the target culture and large financial rewards in the form of Planning Delivery Grants for timely determination of applications has resulted in some cases in hasty, ill-prepared and ill-considered development proposals, and an increasing tendency for officers to take decisions instead of putting them before elected Members.

The vast complexity of running local government now and the extensive influence of external bodies such as the Audit Commission and various quangos such as the LGA, etc., has created what amounts to 'soft despotism' in the UK.  Most senior council officers have to be lawyers or at least have a huge legal department to advise them in just about everything they do and most councillors, even if they devote full-time attention to council work, don't have a prayer of understanding the legal complexities. They are reliant on following officer recommendations and exposed to pressure from arguments such as 'its best practice' or 'other authorities are doing this' or 'its what the LGA recommends'.

In summary local government has become too big and is no longer properly accountable to anyone.  There are vast savings to be made by curtailing their activities and legal framework and at the same time leading to an improvement for participation by ALL citizens in local decision-making.

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