Tuesday, 13 November 2007

Power to the People

The Conservative party – of which I am neither a member nor supporter – will today unveil a plan to give local-government electors the right to vote down large council-tax rises. Apparently, a threshold will be set, and any rise above this threshold will automatically trigger a local referendum.

Of course the devil will lie in the detail, but no-one concerned with the present moribund state of local democracy in England can do other than welcome this idea – as I do.

In response to the Tory proposal, the Local Government Association has said that “Local authorities should have the power to determine, without interference, the appropriate levels of council tax for their areas."

Presumably, however, the words “without interference” do not include local electors.

Of course it seems unlikely that local councillors will welcome these proposals, because the power of these councillors will – in effect – be usurped by the voters whose interests they are supposed to represent – but rarely do.

But if the local-referendum proposal is implemented, permitting local electors to veto local council budgets, local councillors will only have themselves to blame. For decades, a game of poker has been played between Whitehall and the town halls. Whitehall has shifted more and more of the tax burden to local councils, but local councillors have, for the most part, accepted and implemented these increases, and have shrunk from a policy of confrontation.

The Labour government's financial settlement for local authorities seems likely to trigger council-tax increases well above inflation in 2008. There is no justification for this, nor is there any mandate. But local councils do have a choice.

Whatever the culpability of the government, the political parties at local level can remedy the situation by announcing, now, that under no circumstances whatever will they propose or support above-inflation council-tax increases (inclusive of public-service precepts) next year.

Could they all please make such announcements, now?

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