All about me, people are resigning. These include my friend Seth Thévoz, whose letter of resignation was reprinted at The Third Estate, and longstanding Lib Dem activist Richard Huzzey who received a lot of respect after publishing his resignation letter at Lib Dem Voice. In more exalted circles, two PPSs and even Colin Firth have got in on the act.
The breaking of Lib Dem MPs’ pledge to vote against any increase in tuition fees was perhaps morally dubious but quite possibly politically necessary. Does anyone seriously believe that there would have been a better deal if Lib Dems had voted against, broken the Coalition and let in the inevitable Conservative majority government? Leaving aside the issue itself, though, and in slight contradiction to what I’ve just said, the thing that’s annoying me most is the insistence on following the ‘we are in a coalition, the game has changed’ argument. We’re not stupid. Just explain why, in your view, taking the action you did was more important than keeping your previous pledge, and I’ll listen to your argument.
As should be clear from this blog, I am ecumenical about my politics to the point of annoying the odd person, which I hope will continue. At a recent party event up in London I asked some fellow attendees what they thought of Ed Miliband; they replied ‘not much’. When I expressed the view that I thought his election was on the whole a good thing, they replied ‘Because it’s going to destroy the Labour Party?’ Chortling followed. Actually, that’d be because I think it’s a good thing for the country. Imagine that. One’s party is a vehicle and a hub for positive activity – not an end in itself, and if more people across all parties got that this country’s political landscape wouldn’t be quite so littered with sycophantic, tribalist, posh idiots.
But inevitably recent events have got me thinking about why I’m a Liberal Democrat. The focus of my attention though has largely been not tuition fees, but the much-vaunted and thrice-delayed Localism Bill.
Analysis of this complex piece of legislation is still rolling in and seems likely to do so for months; the Royal Town Planning Institute and PlanningResource have been good places to look for up to date comment.
Criticism has been wide and varied. The Bill to some is a NIMBYs’ charter; to others, it will allow unvaunted development without the essential safeguard of the traditional planning system. For some the New Homes Bonus is tantamount to bribery; for others it is too weak an incentive to deliver the housing growth the country needs. And with councils (obviously!) poised to abuse their general power of competence, was Eric Pickles right to ban bin charges or was this just plain populism and hypocrisy? There’s a certain part of me that thinks (much like the comment often made about the BBC) that if something’s being attacked both from the right and from the left in this way, then there is always the possibility that it’s struck the right balance.
The criticism I can’t gloss over (and I do have a vested interest in glossing over the criticisms. Even if you resign, you can only do it once, and you had better be damn sure you know what you’re talking about and that you’re right) centres on finance. Without the results from the ongoing review of local government finance, the mantra that Pickles has given away power without the resources to back it up is difficult to ignore.
It has led David Walker in the Guardian to use the rather cool word ‘farrago’ in describing the Bill. But with many commentators fixated on the cuts in the local government settlement – rather than the real issue of whether councils have more power to raise revenue locally – the IPPR made a telling point, comparing the UK to Europe in terms of the amount of revenue raised and spent locally, and finding us severely lacking despite the ‘ground-breaking shift’ heralded by the Department of Communities and Local Government.
Planning Minister Bob Neill was robust in his response to these concerns:
Communities minister Bob Neill said the IPPR was ‘living in cloud-cuckoo land if they think the public would back new local property taxes and the accompanying intrusive and expensive revaluation’.
He added: ‘The new government is already giving councils greater control over their spending by freeing up £7bn of ring-fenced funding. We are also committed to the local retention of business rates which will make local authorities far less dependent on Whitehall funding.’
This is worrying in two ways. Firstly, Mr. Neill – a man at the heart of the Department most focused on the localism agenda – appears to be wilfully misunderstanding the call that the IPPR and others have made. The question is not additional taxes – but of switching the total tax burden away from the national scale and towards the local, allowing people to see the services that they are paying for in a transparent way and catalysing meaningful local involvement in participatory democracy. There is nothing to suggest, apart from Mr. Neill’s Daily Mail-led paranoia, that property taxes are the only way to raise revenue locally. It just happens to be all they are allowed to do at the moment – other revenues are strictly controlled and business rates taken away from councils altogether, leaving central government with the revenue and local authorities with the annoyed, under-served businesses and the unenviable task of trying to convince them that local ‘partnership working’ is a good thing.
Secondly, Mr. Neill appears to pre-empt the results of the local government finance review, due to begin in early 2011. If it’s already been decided that de-ringfencing and localising the business rate – as welcome as these measures are – is all that will happen, why not say so now rather than going through the charade of a review?
I read an incisive comment a few months back summing up the different Conservative and Liberal visions of localism: in a nutshell, the Lib Dems like councils (a trait which is critiqued here) and the Conservatives want more power for the individual. A few months on this seems prescient. Innovations such as free schools – which I do not, on balance, support – and the abolition of Primary Care Trusts are exactly what the Tories mean by localism and exactly what I don’t mean by localism.
(I should caveat this by saying that I’ve got my eye on the Neighbourhood Planning stuff in the Localism Bill. If backed up by the right resources – which it might not be given that Planning Aid for England has just been given notice that no more money will be forthcoming – it could yet help bridge this gap between the two parties’ visions of localism. But it’s a big if. This isn’t chucking money down the drain – it’s about capacity building and making communities more independent. If the Tories really believe what they say they do, they should be making these kinds of ‘investments to save’, and the Lib Dems should be standing up for that.)
For the moment though, within the Bill itself, things like stopping councils charging for bin collections – though I wouldn’t want to fixate on it – illustrate this difference in vision. As a compromise, if councils want to introduce new charges for any service, or increase their charges significantly for something like leisure centres, why not just extend the referendum safeguard proposed for higher-than-inflation council tax rises to a broader range of decisions? Though it would mean councils spending even more time appeasing the parochial, selfish, conservative-with-a-small-c-and-often-a-big-C scum who think that their home is their castle and the world is their landfill, it would at least have the virtue of being consistent with the decentralisation of power. If you’re going to give power away, people are going to do things you don’t like with it. Get over it.
Without the ability to raise money in a way that meets their local residents’ needs, councils remain hamstrung: tied to a convoluted property tax which government uses periodically as a stick to beat them; forced to return large proportions of locally raised revenue to the Exchequer, muddying the water of local representation and participation based on local taxation; and with major constraints on the sort of innovation and enterprise partnerships that the Government wants to see.
My sort of Lib Dem understands this. Their sort of Tory doesn’t. Their sort of Tory is currently winning the debate. That’s why we’re not all blueish-yellow these days, that’s why I’m still here, and that’s why, if our understanding can prevail over theirs, we’ll have done something far better for this country than mere electoral reform. Let’s make sure the finance review meets our hopes, rather than confirming our fears.