We appear to be reaching a point at which local authorities either need to make a stand, or roll over and die. We are heading, unknowingly, towards a future where local government has no budget and no decision-making powers. With the expectation that councils will only run or fund statutory services in the future, there will be little room for political difference.
Our relationship with local government is changing too. Instead of being citizens, we are becoming consumers. As citizens we can demand the right to determine how services are provided, prioritized and funded. As consumers we only have the right to pay for the services on offer. However, many users of services are not, and will never be, viable ’consumers’ – and in a system where the quality of service you receive depends on your ability to pay (fundamental law of consumerism), they will get nothing. These ‘non-viable’ consumers include children in need of care services, vulnerable adults, those requiring long-term treatment or care, homeless people, the socially/physically isolated, etc. As citizens we can decide how these people are provided for, but as consumers we become powerless – other than to offer our support on a voluntary basis.
All parties are running scared of telling the public that more money is required to run services locally. This lack of money is almost completely due to the huge cuts in funding from central government. We can’t keep arguing that we need more money for adult care, children’s services, bus subsidies, helping the homeless, etc. without also arguing for an increase in council tax. (The Green Party prefers a land value tax to replace council tax, but until then it is the only option.) Councils are charging more for various services, rather than taking a more collective response, i.e., via council tax. Any attempt to raise council tax above the centrally imposed 2% threshold would force a very expensive referendum, removing much of the money generated.
This changing nature of local government means that only statutory services will be supported and many of these will be outsourced. Other services will have to rely on volunteers.
There has not been a proper debate, nor is there a good understanding in the wider public, of the consequences of this reduced role of local government. There will no longer be the political choice between, say, a higher spending and lower spending council. They will have to fund the statutory services, whoever is in charge. There will only be a small leeway in deriving efficiencies, choosing who to outsource to, etc.
This will result in a democratic deficit in local government, with a greater centralisation of power in national government. If people are happy with this, then fair enough. However, I do not believe this likely future has been thoroughly discussed and nor is it a future that I would like to see. Voter turnout is low enough already at local elections, but if whoever you vote for politically has such little impact on how much money is spent or how it is spent, then the turnout is likely to continue to fall.
The alternative is to have more decisions at the local level and to give councils the freedom to raise money and keep more of what they raise. Surely it is right that local government has more say than it does now over what happens locally?