Commentary: Scope for revolution?

One seemingly obvious question – who spends most on local services – has in this country a rather disappointing answer.

It is not just that we always suspected that central government in this overcentralised country spent more than local government – the astonishing thing is how much more. We already knew that the Government Office for London actually spends more than the London Mayor, despite some real devolution of important responsibilities. But recent research shows that for an average of £7,000 of spend on public services in any one place, only £350 is discretionary spending by local authorities.

Clearly this doesn’t feel right. But it is helpful to be able back up our natural instincts in favour of localism with some facts. Research by the Local Government Association shows that this overcentralisation is in practice a recipe for chaos. In one area looked at there were 25 social housing providers for 19,000 homes using 47 different funding streams, 18 of which came from one funder.

The country has long been the most centralised in western Europe but there is potentially some light. There are currently 13 pilot areas where the concept of ‘Total Place’ is being examined – namely the total public spend is being assessed, with Government blessing, to see where there are overlaps, wastage and contradiction.

This has uncovered some of the figures mentioned above and also shows (but we knew this) that the different funders tend to operate within their own policy silos rather than in the interests of the community as a whole. Ring-fencing exacerbates this.

There is clearly potential here for a major win-win: more democracy, more accountability, and major efficiency savings. The danger is that the Government (this or future) will grab the financial efficiencies to bale out the national debt and forget the arguably more important issue of accountability and effectiveness.

Commentary: Queen’s speech not much fun for local government either

The Government has long had a knack of turning a good idea into an operational nightmare. One case in point is the Queen’s Speech proposal for personal care at home. The Prime Minister has given an undertaking to find a way of ensuring that older people with the highest needs can remain at home, regardless of means.

The bill will attempt to help 400,000 people (‘guaranteeing’ free personal care for 280,000 and providing assistance to 130,000 others). Difficult to argue with? In the small print not covered by the nationals screaming about the General Election is the fact that this will cost £670 million a year, of which £250 million will be met from local government ‘efficiency savings’.

But where are these efficiencies to be found? The target for local government is already moving to 4% per annum. Put bluntly – this is a new responsibility for councils without matching funds. The Government promised not so long ago that it would be never do that again.

In fact it has managed it twice in the same Speech: the Flood and Water Management Bill also imposes new duties on councils which the Government conveniently believes can be funded from savings (the Departmental Select Committee has unanimously rejected this claim).

But it’s not only over funding that Government has broken its word. Just a few years ago they were claiming that local authorities would have a new role in school improvement. Their Children, Schools and Families Bill would give the Secretary of State the power to direct councils to issue improvement notices to failing schools. So once again we are made into a local arm of central government rather than locally accountable bodies with our own local knowledge and specialist skills.

Meanwhile, the Tories are making a lot of noise about devolution and some may be tempted to see them as localisers. Those of us with longer memories in local government will recall that centralisation started with the Tories – Labour merely continued the trend. Caroline Spelman’s plans to ban councils from publishing magazines or newspapers and Eric Pickles’s plans to do away with council chief executives do not bode well. If they are this centralising in opposition, the chances are that local powers will be centralised as never before should they be sitting on the Government benches in May.

Commentary: Remembrance Sunday

Three remarkable things happened yesterday.

It was clear that the crowd at the war memorial in St Albans was larger than usual – larger in fact than most of us can remember. The same apparently was true in Whitehall.

The crowd spontaneously instituted a new tradition – it applauded those wearing service uniforms and the British Legion as they passed by on parade. Unprecedented and moving.

The second remarkable event was planned: for the first time the religious service was multi-faith – a Rabbi read scripture and an Imam recited verses from the Quran.

This serves to remind us that decent people everywhere deplore war and those that seek war.

The third might not have been noticed by everyone and was again spontaneous. The French market was in full swing yesterday morning alongside the farmers’ market. The lighting required a powerful generator which was located near the war memorial. This was switched off during the two minutes’ silence.

This is perhaps a reminder – should we need it – that we were not alone when we stood up to aggressors. And a reminder in particular that – despite what tabloids and comedians might say when seeking a cheap sneer or cheap laugh – that the French were our allies.

Commentary: Lest we forget

Let us remember why wars can happen. Defend civil liberties at all times.

‘First they came for the communists, and I did not speak out—because I was not a communist;
Then they came for the socialists, and I did not speak out—because I was not a socialist;
Then they came for the trade unionists, and I did not speak out—because I was not a trade unionist;
Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out—because I was not a Jew;
Then they came for me—and there was no one left to speak out for me.’

Pastor Martin Niemöller (1892–1984)

Follow this link:

St Peter’s Street on line survey

We asked you what you thought about banning cars from St Peter’s Street. Respondents split 3 to 2 in favour. Interestingly, however, those who were strongly in favour outnumbered those strongly against by 3 to 1.

Thanks you to all who participated.

Please use our latest on line survey on this page as well as telling us what you think about county services.

Commentary: Life through a distorting lens

Extracts from an article by Roger Protz, Morning Advertiser

Put to the test

In spite of a late sideswipe at the supermarkets, the main thrust of Panorama was that not just happy hours but the 2006 Licensing Act were to blame for the chronic state of affairs in Oldham.

I put the new licensing laws to the test last Saturday night in my home city of St Albans. Before the new law came in to effect, St Albans did have a problem with drinking. It has half the population of Oldham, but a lot of pubs — close to 60.

Most of the pubs are crammed into the city centre. When they all shut at 11pm on Friday and Saturday nights, sensible people stayed at home. Over-beered people poured out of the pubs and mayhem followed.

Late last Saturday night, when I drove through the centre of St Albans, the pubs were busy, but there were no marauding crowds on the streets, “doing the circuit”. The pubs stagger their closing times. The 11pm swill and mass exit is a thing of the past.

So, Richard Bilton and the editors at Panorama, come to St Albans and most other town and city centres at the weekend.
You will find a different image to that offered by just one street in Oldham, packed not with pubs but with bars and nightclubs.
The BBC won’t show a positive image because it doesn’t suit the corporation’s agenda. Panorama, once a respected flagship BBC news programme, is now no better than the red-top tabloids and their wild distortions.

The beleaguered British pub needs and deserves better.

Green Party tries to pull wool over our eyes

Green claims to have won St Peter’s ward have been shown up to be (at best) arrant nonsense. They claimed to have been able to see through the paper of the European ballot papers and to have spied a Green victory.

Fact 1: the paper was entirely opaque at the ‘verification’ stage of the count last Friday – the only point at which it would have been possible for ballot papers to have been associated with particular wards. The papers were checked face down as required by European election regulations (ballot papers can only be laid out in public face up once the vting in all other European countries is complete – two days later!)
Fact 2: the county council ballot papers were, by contrast, verified face up and so it was possible to do sample counts of how the parties had done within a district ward. This we did along with the other parties. The Liberal Democrats were well ahead in all polling districts in St Peter’s Ward.

Commentary: Desperate Labour resort to smears

Labour’s desperation in the face of a possible meltdown in both county and European elections has led them to using smear tactics.

In St Albans they have issued a libellous leaflet about me which is in the hands of my solicitors: so far we have had a private apology. (Labour have no county council seats here so it is not clear why they bother).

It is small wonder that people are disillusioned with politics and especially with the Labour Party.

Commentary: Observer endorses Liberal Democrats

Today’s Observer:

Editorial: ‘This Thursday’s vote is being held in a uniquely febrile climate. it should be about Europe; it will be about eh expenses scandal. On both counts, it is a moment to reward the principled consistency of the Liberal Democrats.’

Andrew Rawnsley: ‘If you want to maximise the chances of securing serious constitutional reform, then the party to vote for is the Lib Dems.’