Tom Richmond: A local difficulty as political window dressing tries to mask scale of cuts

Conservative Party Chairman Eric Pickles.
Conservative Party Chairman Eric Pickles.
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IT’S not just the rich – and the Government’s perpetual inability to decide whether it is on the side of the well-off or not.

The coalition has an equally incoherent approach towards localism, supposedly one of David Cameron’s defining policy themes.

Are Ministers genuinely in favour of devolving powers to cities, towns and districts across Yorkshire – or does localism only work when it suits Whitehall’s interests? It increasingly looks like the latter following the latest contradictions, with the Government probably wanting local leaders to share the blame for the next phase of public sector cuts.

I’m sure this is one reason why Ministers want to foist directly-elected mayors on Leeds, Sheffield, Wakefield and Bradford when there is little appetite for this reform – and despite taxpayers in Doncaster trying to do away with this tier of bureaucracy after a decade of political acrimony.

If localism mattered, this concept would be driven by the cities concerned – rather than by Ministers altering the goalposts repeatedly and still being unclear on the powers that mayors will have? Now there’s the prospect of council leaders having to stand as elected mayors, but will the public notice any difference?

It’s the same with elected police commissioners. The Government says they will improve accountability – but there is no guarantee that they will cut crime or justify their expense.

Yet I can imagine this scenario being played out in due course. Residents in a local community want more police on the beat – a laudable concern.

They lobby their local councillor who takes it up with his area’s super-mayor and police commissioner. They say they have no money so local MPs are asked to take up their cudgels. They lobby the Minister who says there should be more police on the beat – but that this is a matter for locally-elected leaders. What then happens, especially as the bulk of local authority and police funding is derived from government grants rather than the council tax?

Talk about buck-passing and an abdication of responsibility.

Of course, the Government will deny this – it is serious about regional leadership and accountability – and that taxpayers will wonder what the fuss was about once the new mayors and commissioners are up and running. Be positive, Ministers contend repeatedly.

Yet how can one derive confidence from the coalition’s localism when national politicians are playing so hard and fast with the rules?

Take policing. South Yorkshire Police wanted to retain its helicopter. Policing Minister Nick Herbert did not as he created a National Air Service. The result? Local police concerns ignored by a politician just before he travelled to Holland to see how officers there are tasked with meeting the public’s expectations each week.

It goes on. Housing Minister Grant Shapps told Parliament that shoppers should not be “exposed to unreasonable charges”. A hint at a reduction in parking charges?

No, just this uncompromising message to town hall leaders: “I encourage all local authorities to think about their local economy – something that should be much easier to do when they know that they are going to be keeping the business rates in future.”

Yet it is not just junior ministers who are guilty of double standards – Tony Blair famously launched the first police community support officers a decade ago and took the political credit before telling councils that they had to foot the bill.

However, in this Government, the biggest culprit – politically-speaking of course – is none other than one-time Bradford Council leader Eric Pickles, the pugnacious Communities and Local Government Secretary.

His brief is localism, but you wouldn’t have guessed it judging by his latest pronouncements. Instead of allowing town halls to set council tax – with the proviso that excessive increases have to be backed by voters in a referendum – he is offering financial incentives to ensure bills are frozen for a second year. Yet, because of this, more jobs may have to be lost to meet the funding shortfall, hence why Richmondshire and York Councils are not taking up the offer.

It continues. Rather than allowing local authorities to determine refuse collection policies, Pickles has been showing further control-freakery tendencies with inducements for those councils that empty the bins every week. Locally, it has left Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg, in favour of weekly collections, at odds with his local council in Sheffield which wants to introduce fortnightly collections. Again, shouldn’t this be left to democratically-elected councillors on the ground? It is little wonder that people despair of interventions that vary between opportunism and obfuscation. It just blurs, still further, the process of responsible decision-making and accountability.

This state of affairs was summed up by Sheffield MP Clive Betts, who heads Parliament’s Communities and Local Government Select Committee. He said: “This is not localism, it is not giving power back to councils, it is centralised localism – attempting to direct what local councils do, to skew them to what the Government wants by offering financial incentive.”

I agree. But, regrettably, I cannot see the situation changing – irrespective of whether it is David Cameron or Ed Miliband in Downing Street.

Why? For, as long as Ministers have control over the allocation of government grants, which comfortably outstrip new powers to allow councils to keep the business rates paid by new firms, they will always have the upper hand on spending priorities.

And, because of this, they will be the first to take credit for popular policies – and the first to blame local leaders when things go awry.

As such, all talk about localism is just that – political window dressing to mask the scale of the cuts now being implemented.