The Government’s new education bill is the latest salvo in its unrelenting, yet misguided, attack on our local councils.
The underlying accusation in the Government’s Education and Adoption Bill is clear. Local authorities are allowing schools to fail and are refusing to do anything about it. So it is left to ministers to step in and sort out the mess that our local politicians have made. And the way to do this, it appears, is to wrest control of failing schools away from councils and to create more independent – yet centrally-funded – academies.
But far from being simply an attempt to ‘sweep away bureaucratic and legal loopholes’, as Education Secretary Nicky Morgan claims, this Bill is the latest step in the Government’s drive to emasculate local government and to turn our local authorities into little more than toothless providers of centrally-controlled services.
This war on local councils isn’t a new phenomenon. It started with the control-freakery and compulsive target setting of the Blair years, but was ramped up under the coalition government by the then Communities Secretary Eric Pickles, accused by Will Hutton of having ‘colluded cheerfully with George Osborne to knock local government back to being no more than rat catchers and managers of street lighting’.
Local planning policy and development plans are subject increasingly to central government requirements and targets. Free schools and academies are removing education from local authority control. The Audit Commission, perhaps the single greatest driver of improved accountability and value for money at the local level, has been abolished.
And all the while, Mr. Pickles came out with ever more bizarre diktats aimed at curbing the small amount of freedom that local authorities still possess. Bins should be collected at least weekly, for example, while council newspapers should be published no more frequently than quarterly, though preferably not at all. In case my local monthly North Somerset Life was to accidentally endanger the market position of the Daily Mail.
At the same time, local government has been subject to brutal funding cuts, which are set to continue under the new Government. Spending has been slashed by 40% since 2010 and council bosses fear that they will not be able to find more savings without serious consequences for community life and social care. Things do not look good.
So why is local government taking such a pummelling? Well, it’s partly financial. In the Government’s blinkered charge against the deficit, all parts of the public sector are taking a hit. But I can’t help but think that, deep down, it’s actually about control. For all the talk of localism and devolution of powers, the Government wants to keep true power for itself. It really, really does not want local authorities to be able to do their own thing.
If we continue down this road, though, our local councils will end up as little more than empty husks. Soulless bureaucracies implementing central government policies with no consideration of local needs. ‘Virtual’ organisations presiding mindlessly over a series of outsourced service delivery contracts. Or perhaps even just one giant mega-council based in, er, Westminster. Turnout at local elections will falter. Local democracy will die.
But it doesn’t have to be like this. Local councils don’t have to be the poorer, neglected cousins of their central government overlords. Being the second tier of government does not have to mean second-class government.
Imagine, instead, that local authorities were actually free to design and run local services. With full control over how they provide these services and how they can best respond to the needs of local people and businesses. And a funding system that provides stability and security, that isn’t at the mercy of political machinations and short-term point scoring.
Of course, this might mean that local councils and local services look different in different parts of the country. Because shockingly, it might turn out that the needs of people in Darlington are different from people in Dartford or Droitwich. Or that residents in Truro want to spend more on improving transport links, while those in Teesside would prefer to focus on attracting new jobs. I’m not suggesting a free for all. But I am suggesting (and I don’t mean to be controversial here) that diversity is not a vice.
A refreshed and relevant local government would revitalise local democracy. It could attract a generation of aspiring new politicians. It could stimulate debate and allow communities to steer their own futures. But Westminster clearly doesn’t want this. It already sees local government as a waste of time, a stumbling block on the path to greater central control. To think otherwise requires courage and vision. But if the Education and Adoption Bill is anything to go by, these are two attributes that are currently in rather short supply.
Simon Perks is a writer, speaker and independent advisor focusing on the public services.