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Duncan Smith: A fair deal for local government and local communities

Speech to Local Government Association Annual Conference in Harrogate

Last year when we met, I spoke about the lack of fairness in our public services, the grip of centralisation on our local councils and communities and the resulting democratic deficit at the heart of local politics in this country.

12 months later I'm sad to say little has changed.

Community life is breaking down - particularly in parts of our inner cities.

Hundreds of teachers are facing the prospect of redundancy, those leaving are not replaced, while others are overworked, overstretched and under appreciated.

We are failing to see the improvements in health care that we all hoped for and our roads and railways are as broken and congested as ever.

Meanwhile, as your Chairman Sir Jeremy Beecham said this week, the Government's 'new localism' has turned into little more than 'new centralism' and the turnout at this year's local elections crawled to just 30%.

All in all, it's been a year of missed opportunity for this Government.

But some of us have been putting the year to good use. The Local Government Association has continued to enhance its status as the voice of local government in this country.

Only recently, you played a valuable role in exposing the truth about the education funding crisis. When the Government tried to shift the blame on to local authorities, the LGA stood up for the truth - and for that we are all grateful.

And I welcome too your summer review document, Ambition Thwarted, which includes a much needed evaluation of the current difficulties facing local government and exposes once again the failings of this Government's 'new localism' approach.

The Conservative Party has also been putting the past year to good use, developing the theme of Community Government I set out at your conference last year and restoring our fortunes across the board.

I'm delighted that today there are many more Conservative councillors here and I congratulate all of them on their election. No matter what any formula says, the Conservative Party is the largest party in local government in Great Britain. We have the most councillors and control the largest number of councils. That's a record of which we can be proud.

The National Agenda

We fought this year's elections on local issues like the state of local streets, the provision of local services and the levels of council tax charged by local councils.

These are all issues that affect the quality of life for people in this country - and they are all things that local councils can control and on which they are rightly judged.

Yet there are always some things that have to be delivered collectively by central government.

In these areas, our task is to recognise the boundaries between central and local government and to see where Whitehall can work with local communities to deliver better services rather than simply walking all over them.

Policing is one of these areas.

Earlier today, I launched my party's agenda for tackling crime. It is based on a partnership between central government and local people with each doing what they can to tackle this problem that affects too many people's lives.

Our approach has two key elements. It aims both to protect victims and to help would-be offenders off the conveyor belt to crime.

And it recognises that one of the greatest social challenges facing any community in Britain today is the drugs menace.

For years in this country we've either turned a blind-eye to young drug addicts or treated them as criminals. Ignoring them for years and then locking them up in prisons when they commit a crime. We do little to get them off the habit and to stop them offending - no wonder we have the highest rates of recidivism amongst young offenders.

This approach is simply not working.

All we've seen as a result are ever-higher levels of violence on our streets, whole communities ruled by gun law and millions of lives made miserable.

It's simply not good enough to give up on these problems and to leave people, families and communities behind while the rest of the country shares in the wealth of the fourth richest country in the world.

In many places - particularly in our inner cities - places like Easterhouse, Moss Side and Handsworth - in the past year I've been told of children who have died as a result of drug addiction. I've seen communities terrorised by gang warfare.

Decent people who live by the law but don't feel they get any protection from it in return. They're the victims of an attitude that says nothing can be done to turn their neighbourhoods around.

The tragedy is that many of the people engaging in these crimes are themselves victims - victims of a system that has left them behind.

For all this Government's promises, 50,000 kids play truant from school every day because they find it too boring, 30,000 leave school with no GCSEs whatsoever and nearly 4 million are still living in poverty after six years of Labour Government.

Of course people have a choice about following a life of crime, but that choice is much easier for them when the system has let them down so badly.

The only way to bring about a substantial and sustained reduction in crime is to treat both sides - protection for victims and help for potential offenders - with equal purpose.

Central Government must play its part, so we will start by putting an extra 40,000 police officers on our streets so that they can clamp down on crime where and when it happens.

But we must also do more to bring young people back into society, so we will ensure every young heroin and cocaine addict has a rehabilitation place available for them so that they can choose treatment instead of prison.

And rather than central government directing this treatment, we will look to local groups to deliver the service meaning that a range of methods will be available in different areas of the country.

This partnership between central government and local people is the only way a civilised society can reclaim the streets for the quiet but law-abiding majority of people in this country.

A Fair Deal for Local Government

We recognise that the very nature of government in this country has changed.

When we come to office, a Conservative administration in London will have to work with administrations from different political parties in Wales and Scotland.

This will require a different approach. Rather than Whitehall handing down directives and expecting them to be carried out, central government must now work within the structure of government in this country to see its policies implemented.

And what applies between Whitehall and the devolved administrations in Wales and Scotland must also be reflected in the relationship between local government and Whitehall.

For too long, local councils have been treated as an extension of Whitehall - vehicles through which centrally determined policies are administered rather than elected bodies with the powers and resources to decide policies of their own.

They lack real influence over finance.

Only about a quarter of local councils' finances in this country are raised from council tax, compared with 62% in the US, 66% in France and Germany and over 80% in Switzerland, Sweden and Austria. Yet the amount of local government funding that is ring-fenced has trebled since this Government came to power six years ago.

In recent years we've seen an explosion of compliance regulation, with prescriptive new standards administered by agencies ranging from the Office for Standards in Education to the National Care Standards Commission.

Councils are required to write more and more plans setting out how they will achieve a range of Government targets while the Government's 'Best Value' scheme judges how well they've done in meeting them.

The Comprehensive Performance Assessment regime tells us how well a particular council has done, but only when judged against arbitrary government targets.

And the 66 statutory plans currently in place ensure central government's will is carried out, while also resulting in money being diverted away from local priorities to meet the demands of Whitehall.

This approach is not only failing to deliver the improvements we all want to see, it is also destroying local accountability and democracy.

Tied up in so much red-tape, councils are unable to set their own policies and to be judged on their record of delivery. The talent of local councillors is wasted as they are turned into agents of Whitehall rather than the strong local voice people want them to be.

And shorn of that local voice and local attachment, many of our communities are simply breaking down.

The consequence of this is a loss of civic pride and the breakdown of society.

There are those who argue that this is inevitable and that decline can only be managed and not reversed. I do not believe this.

We can do something about it, but only if we begin to recognise that the answer will come from the bottom up - not from the top down.

Central government will never solve all of the problems in this country by itself, but by working with people rather than against them we give ourselves a sporting chance.

So this is my commitment to you: to turn this around and deliver a Fair Deal for Everyone, I want to see a true partnership between the next Conservative Government in Whitehall and a strong Local Government Association representing strengthened local authorities.

I want local councils to be able to innovate and inspire local people and I want them to be free to develop local solutions to the problems of their areas.

I want to enhance the role you play as advocates for your local communities, but to do so we must urgently row back from the centralising approach that has done so much harm.

CPA, Best Value and Statutory Plans

In the next few weeks, I will be publishing a consultation paper outlining a variety of ways in which this dream can be turned into reality.

But today I would like to give you a preview of some of these ideas.

And let me begin by giving you a concrete pledge that we will abolish the Comprehensive Performance Assessment scheme.

It is a perverse logic indeed to promise autonomy to those councils that are already performing well. This is an approach that says Whitehall still knows best.

Well I think we've tested that theory to destruction, so under a Conservative Government there will be a presumption in favour of freedom for councils. This will allow poorly performing councils to innovate and experiment until they find the policies and solutions that are right for their area. The Comprehensive Performance Assessment regime will go.

The Best Value scheme will also be abolished. It is heavy-handed and places too many restrictions and inspections on councils.

My Taskforce on Community Government is looking at alternatives to both of these schemes, but at its simplest I think an annual financial audit, written in plain English and put into the public domain would ensure that people are still able to check up on the performance and delivery of their local council, while doing away with the excessive burdens councils currently face.

That Taskforce is also looking at the number of statutory plans with a view to conducting a substantial cull, eventually leading to the abolition of most of them. We cannot deliver real local autonomy until all of the unnecessary plans are done away with.

And finally, we will recognise the crucial role played by Parish Councils in our national life and abolish the draconian Code of Conduct so that we can make life easier for people who volunteer to help their local community.

These proposals amount to an immediate series of sweeping reforms, and we will of course consult widely with the Local Government Association, Local Councils and Local Councillors before we put them in place. But there should be no doubt that we are serious about pushing power down and enhancing the freedom of local councils and communities.

Capping

This is also the case in one other crucial area.

I mentioned earlier the lack of control councils have over their own finances. They continue to rely on central government for most of the money they raise and spend, and this of course further encourages the Treasury to seek to micro-manage every penny that's spent and every policy it is spent on.

So when the Government sought to blame councils for the massive council tax increases we witnessed this year it was simply being disingenuous.

The Government claims every council received an above inflation increase, but fails to mention at the same time that they also face more targets and more restrictions than ever before.

All the money given to councils is being spent on applying government directives.

We believe it is right that councils should have the right to raise this money locally, and we believe they will ultimately be held to account for the way they spend their money through the ballot box. The ability to raise this money is a fundamental freedom of local councils, so the next Conservative Government will not use its powers to cap increases as this Government threatened to do.

But we do of course believe in value for money, and that is why I'm proud that on average Conservative councils deliver better services for lower levels of tax than their competitors.

They do so because they innovate and work hard.

But I know they're not the only ones. Many councillors of all political parties add daily to the quality of life for people in this country - and for that, you all deserve our thanks, whoever you are and whatever party you belong to.

I increasingly find that we have much we can agree on, and that agreement will be crucial when it comes to building the partnership between central and local government that the next Conservative Administration will seek.

Regional Government

We agree for example, that local government is over-regulated and over-burdened.

We agree that it has been treated as the local office of Whitehall for too long.

And we agree that it can play a crucial role in delivering public services and in turning around the decline of our local communities.

What a shame it is then that the Government wants to put in place new layers of government to get in the way and disrupt the transition of power and responsibility between Whitehall and local councils.

This is a Government that likes 'new' things. They seem constantly to be looking for something to leave as their legacy. I fear regional government in England may well be it.

It is unnecessary and expensive. As well as requiring a costly restructuring of local government, regional assemblies will also swallow up huge amounts of money in running costs and other expenses.

And yet, for all that, they won't provide one extra teacher, nurse or police officer for the areas they serve.

The Government claim they will help economic regeneration, but the CBI and the IOD say they won't.

The Government claim they will decentralise power, but as you have shown in your recent survey most people believe they will strip powers away from local councils.

The Government claim they will democratise the regional quangos - I say let's just get rid of the quangos in the first place and push the powers down to local councils.

The Government claims they will give a voice to local people, but all they promise are more distant bureaucracies based in arbitrary cities across England.

And the truth is local people already have a voice - it's called local government. It's just that this Government won't let that voice be heard.

So that's why we are opposing the Government's plans - and if you believe in local democracy I urge you to do the same.

Conclusion

Let us instead look at how we can push power down to local people.

Let us instead set councils free to innovate and prosper.

Let us instead work with local councils and local people to build the neighbourly society that can turn around the decline of many of our country's communities.

As your Chairman said only this week, 'Councils, flexible and free to work in partnership at a local level, offer the solution to raising quality and choice in public services'.

To that I would add that they also offer the solution to raising the quality of life for people across the board.

In recent years it has been all too rare for a Conservative Leader to be able to stand before you with a renewed base in local government and a renewed commitment to seeing local government thrive.

Today I am happy to do so, and I look forward in the years to come to working with you in partnership to make a real difference to the quality of our political, social and economic life in this country.

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