It’s time to make local government truly local again!

Contributed Article, Source: Dean CarrollThe Tories will devolve power from central government, give councils more money from housing development, abolish RDAs, and encourage councils to promote economic growth in their area, writes Bob Neill, shadow local government minister

A Conservative government would devolve power away from central and regional government down to the local level to ensure that people are given a much greater say in the decisions that affect them. I firmly believe that real innovation is being stifled by the straightjacket of over centralised government control and our localist agenda will change this. Put simply, we want to make local government truly local again. We will put real trust in local democracy by decentralising power, putting communities and their elected representatives in charge.

Instead of following a localist agenda as they promised way back in 1997, Labour have created distant, ineffective, unelected and incredibly expensive tiers of regional government that has taken power away from local communities. We want to give that power back and will devolve the functions that these bodies have back to local government. Firstly, all regional planning and housing powers would be returned to local authorities giving them the discretion to decide on the level of appropriate development in their areas. The deeply unpopular Regional Spatial Strategies that impose unsustainable development demands on local communities will also go.

Instead of top down housing targets we want to allow local authorities to meet housing demand whilst benefiting financially from that growth. As it stands local authorities that acquire larger council tax bases as a result of house-building will, in many cases, find that the amount of formula grant received from central government clawed back through the equalisation process. Instead, we will replace the current bureaucratic Housing & Planning Delivery Grant with a larger new Matching Fund to match the additional council tax raised by each local authority for each new house built for each of the six years after the house is built. As a result councils will get an automatic, six-year, 100 per cent increase in the amount of revenue derived from each new house built in their area, a transparent incentive to encourage communities to accept rather than reject appropriate new housing.

We also believe that Regional Development Agencies (RDAs) are often less effective than they could be, because they are defined by arbitrary regional boundaries. These arbitrary boundaries often fail to reflect the natural, local economies that have formed as a result of transport links, technological links, clusters of natural and human resources, and the choices made by businesses and their customers. As a consequence, the RDAs are much less able than they should be to help local businesses expand in good times and survive in bad times. So we will also give elected local authorities the power to come together to establish new enterprise partnerships that truly reflect natural economic divisions, and to take over from their RDAs the responsibility for economic development within those areas.

Allowing for the abolition of RDAs is also one way of making real savings. Although there is clear evidence of inherent failings within regional government it is still incredibly expensive. The salary bill for RDAs has trebled from £38 million to over £120 million and total running costs have risen by 159 per cent to £202 million, including the costs of running a panoply of individual offices in a variety of foreign countries.

Greater financial independence is at the heart of localism and so coupled with our pledge to introduce a new bottom up incentive scheme that will give local communities a share in local house building growth we will also provide incentives for local authorities to encourage more businesses to set up and expand in their areas.

A Conservative government would give real incentives for councils to promote local economic growth, by allowing them to keep the uplift in business rate revenues when new business is attracted to the area. We will also give local authorities the discretion to levy business rate discounts, which really would help local firms during a recession.

These new powers will be reinforced with a general power of competence which gives local authorities an explicit freedom to act in the best interests of their voters, unhindered by the absence of specific legislation supporting their actions. No action ““ except raising taxes will any longer be ‘beyond the powers’ of local government in England, unless the local authority is prevented from taking that action by the common law, specific legislation or statutory guidance.

With extra power must come greater accountability for local government because putting communities in charge means making sure that councils are accountable to their citizens.

So, following the example of Boris Johnson in London, all local authorities will be required to publish detailed information online on their expenditure. The public have a right to know what they are paying for and real transparency is the most effective way of ensuring value for money in local government.

Getting value for money from all layers of government over the coming years is going to be vital. Therefore, clusters of councils will be encouraged to merge their frontline services and backroom operations to provide better value for money – including sharing senior staff like chief executives. But, we will not force local authorities into wholesale restructuring as the current government has done.

An important part of our plan for change is to end blunt the instrument of capping, as it takes decisions about local spending and local taxation out of the hands of local voters. Instead, we will introduce a new system that uses local referendums to control the level of local taxation, allowing authorities to make the case for above average council tax rises, whilst giving the people they serve the power veto a plans that they find unacceptable.

Delivering localism is an essential plank of the Conservative commitment to building a stronger society and allowing everyone a fair say in the decisions that affect them, I firmly believe that this radical new settlement will achieve this.