It’s time for Town Halls to take back local powers

TONY NEWMAN, the leader of the Labour group on Croydon Council, says that it is long overdue for powers to be returned to local councils so that they can take responsibility for their communities

After serving as an elected local politician since 1994, both in administration and opposition and under governments of both parties, it is clearer than ever that the real power in this country remains firmly in the hands of the civil servants in Whitehall.

Tony Newman: time to hand more power back to the nation's Town Halls

Tony Newman: time to hand more power back to the nation’s Town Halls

The central London-based civil service that was set up to govern an Empire, mercifully no longer has any say in how the rest of the world is run. It also has little say now in how Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland are governed.

However, this has left a monolithic structure in Whitehall that, in the absence of anything much else to do, seeks increasingly to micro-manage every decision in every town and borough in England.

So among the many exciting policy announcements coming out of Labour’s conference in Brighton, one that will get little or no attention but is very welcome is Ed Miliband’s decision to put in place a “local government taskforce”.

Those called to serve on this body include the leader of Manchester Council, the elected mayor of Hackney and the leader of the Stevenage borough council, a real cross-section of local governance structures. The taskforce’s remit is to review and redefine how a Labour government will work in real partnership with local government, and not again retreat to the default option that “Whitehall knows best”.

In Croydon, I have committed an incoming Labour administration to being both open and transparent, but we must go further and look at how we can devolve decision-making and budgets to a local or perhaps area-based level and genuinely empower people to take the decisions that affect the communities in which they live.

We will do this because it is the right thing to do. It is clearly not the best way to govern a town the size of Croydon by deluding ourselves that can now be achieved by diktat from the Town Hall, something that has become the case under Jon Rouse and Mike Fisher.

So I look forward with a passion to a Labour government that will truly devolve power to local people and local communities, because we in Croydon know best the needs of our population in terms of issues such as housing, transport and, of course, the environment. It is simply not acceptable that decisions about major housing developments locally are taken by faceless, nameless civil servants or key decisions about projects such as future tram extensions remain hidden in locked draws in Whitehall.

To reconnect local councils and democracy with local people, we have to trust again local politicians to take the “big” decisions that impact on the communities we represent. If we do that, then perhaps more people will bother to vote in local elections and more people will put themselves forward to stand in council elections as we attempt to make local democracy truly relevant again.

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5 Responses to It’s time for Town Halls to take back local powers

  1. A local government task force?
    That sounds to me like Mr Miliband taking a Tiger Woods style swing at the ball, sending it so far into the long grass it will take a Parliament or two to find it.
    If it does ever resurface I suspect the recommendation will be for regional devolution – in Croydon’s case that would mean a beefed-up Greater London Authority rather than the borough.
    And if you look at the council’s miserable record on major developments under both parties, that would surely be the right decision.

  2. bobhewlett says:

    Tony is correct in that locally elected councils should be handed back those powers that have been gradually taken away over the past 30 years. For too long decisions have been taken centrally, leaving local elections a mere shadow of themselves and becoming just a barometer of national elections.

    Centralised power also makes for lazy politics. In Croydon’s case, Fisher and co follow the diktat with an eye on a higher rung up the political ladder, unpopular decisions are blamed on Whitehall and shoulders are shrugged whilst claiming that they are only following orders. As for popular decisions, I do not believe they have made one yet.

    There are many examples of past Tory and Labour Councils disagreeing with their party’s national government, this is what local politics are about, putting council residents first.

    Miliband’s idea of a local government taskforce, whilst it could be a good idea, should not be just served with Sir This from Manchester or Mayor That from Hackney but also with representatives from Trade Unions and small businesses so this does not become just another talking shop.

    The incoming Croydon Labour administration should not only be open and transparent, as indicated by Tony, but also be bold and radical.

  3. Tony Newman is spot on that local government is too centrally controlled and there needs to be devolution of powers back to councils from Whitehall. But that is only part of the problem.

    There are several other aspects as to why local authorities have lost control. The former Section 106 and now Community Infrastructure Levy have given more power to developers to distort the development needs of boroughs in pursuit of profit. This has been aggravated by the way Secretaries of State have overruled local councils’ and inspectors’ decisions on rejected planning applications eg Prescott’s Folly (St George Tower, Vauxhall).

    There is a lack of rights for people to appeal against planning decisions of which they disapprove. The Academies and Free Schools education reforms of both Labour and coalition governments have taken many schools outside the support and planning framework only a council can provide. A major problem has also been the way councils’ ruling political groups take decisions that are opposed, like the Croydon Tories over libraries, the closure of David Lean Cinema, and the sale of part of the Riesco Collection, etc.

    More powers back to local authorities must be counter-balanced by more power to residents to influence decision-making, through some kind of neighbourhood governance. The council cabinet system of governance aggravates the problem by disempowering the majority of councillors, who still have not understood what is the potential for the scrutiny process, and makes councillors, particularly opposition ones, timid.

    The commercial confidentiality forced on councils by legislation ensures that the upper hand lies with the bidders for council service contracts, as we have seen over the libraries. The legacy of reforms from the mid-1960s, like the creation of the modern London boroughs, is that the sheer size of areas covered by councils is too large to make service provision and planning manageable.

    These are complex issues and there are no easy solutions. Therefore it does make sense to have a national review. But it will have to be run in a way which reaches out to encourage local communities to take part. Of course this review will only happen if Labour wins the General Election. The local elections come first next May. So if elected Croydon Labour can start its own review of the changes it can make within the current limitations.

  4. davidcallam says:

    Sean: do you really want to take us back to the Metropolitan Boroughs structure that existed in London prior to 1965? Surely not: in Croydon’s case the present structure has proved too small: Croydon Gateway and Park Place are monuments to the small-minded municipal infighting that have left the sites derelict. We can only guess at the horrors we will discover in the Croydon Urban Renewal Vehicle, when we are eventually allowed to know the details.
    Greater democracy can so easily become an argument for inertia: Croydon already has too much of that.

    • The larger the size the more complex the operation and the more distant the politicians become. If you want to keep current size or even go for a bigger size then you will have to build in local democratic structures.

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