Common Sense Commitments to Local Government
Thank you for inviting me again to address your Association today.
Two years ago, I stood before you and I talked of the Conservative Party's determination to make a fresh start, of our determination to establish ourselves once more as the Party of local democracy and local communities.
I talked of the way we were going to listen to the British people - and indeed, one of the most important groups of people we spoke to were councillors.
And I talked of the way we were going to learn from our experience in Government. I said that we accepted that there had been serious tensions between central and local government.
Many in local Government felt that power had been too centralised. Interest by the electorate in local government had fallen. And many felt that we had spent too much time reorganising local government and valued its contribution too little.
So I start this speech knowing that my own party didn't always get things right.
Two years later we have been listening and learning, and our commitment to local government has been reflected in the support we have achieved in recent local elections.
Conservatives have long understood the tendency of the state to grow and for political intervention to increase. We have long committed ourselves to contain and then reverse this growth. Now I think we understand that the state is also chronically centralising. We have committed ourselves to contain and reverse this tendency too. Conservatives now understand that getting big government off the back of people requires that trusting local communities must be a central principle of a properly Conservative government.
Yet despite the progress Conservatives have been making, the last two years have not been kind to local government in general. The last two years have seen one centralising measure after another, taking power away from local communities. It is a trend that has aroused anger and concern from members of all political parties.
There has, for example, been the Local Government Bill that imposes change on councils. New structures should not be forced on local government. Councils should be able to choose the structures they prefer and if they wish to retain the Committee system, that should be an option. It is arrogant to suggest that Cabinets or Mayors are the only local government structures which work - and it is an insult to councillors who operate efficient and accountable Committee-based councils.
There have been centralising changes in local government finance. Many centrally-controlled Specific Grants have increased by more than 50 per cent. This means less local discretion for local councils.
At the same time, while the Government claims to have removed capping, eighty per cent of local authorities' funding now comes from central government - which as a result, reduces the democratic accountability and relevance of councils in the eyes of local people.
The right policy is not to use capping powers on local councils. It is to allow councils to set council tax at their discretion. I want to be able to trust local government to take serious decisions affecting local people without the risk of heavy-handed intervention from central government. It should be for local residents to use the ballot box to register their approval or dissent. That will be the policy of the next Conservative Government.
There have been a host of centralising measures in education too. Over the past three years, the Government has sent out over 500 notices and circulars, introduced over 400 new regulations, issued more than 1,500 press releases and brought out seven new plans for local education authorities. This bureaucracy is taking up valuable teacher time and costs money that could be better spent in the classroom.
The right policy is to set schools free from bureaucracy by cutting the number of government plans and drastically reducing the number of circulars, missives and diktats. Greater choice for parents and greater freedom for local schools is the way to raise standards. And that too, will be the policy of the next Conservative Government.
I fear that there is more centralisation to come. The Government intends to press on with establishing regional assemblies. But regionalisation will not mean greater autonomy for local communities. Indeed the Government admits that the introduction of regional assemblies will entail the abolition of county councils and the ending of two-tier local government.
I do not believe we need yet another local government reorganisation. In many cases, the last reorganisation pitted councillor against councillor. It does not need to be repeated.
And I do not believe that local residents will identify with regional structures more than they do with their current structures.
Who will the people of Cornwall relate to more - a talking shop of the region of South West, or their local county?
Once again this is not a concern confined to Conservatives. As one Liberal Democrat MP remarked recently, 'a regional chamber has been established, but this is merely a talking shop. Some are getting so carried away with this that they genuinely believe public torpor can be interpreted as enthusiasm to set up directly elected bodies with real decision making powers… Minor empire-builders and anoraks are behind this mindless nonsense.'
In the South East, why should there be a unwieldy bureaucracy that covers an area as broad as Oxford to Folkestone? And in my own Yorkshire, while there is a sense of shared heritage - as typified by the Yorkshire County Cricket team - areas like Scarborough and Whitby in the north are very different from Sheffield and Rotherham in the south.
Regional assemblies will come at a price as well. Based on the cost of the Greater London Authority, regional assemblies outside London could cost local taxpayers over £200 million per year in administrative costs alone, on top of the £70 million per year currently spent on Regional Development Agencies. This money would be better spent by local councils on their local communities, not on new red tape.
For all these reasons Conservatives will scrap these moves towards regional government. We will give power back to local communities, strengthening local authorities, schools, voluntary groups and parish councils.
For we believe that local government needs to be just that - local. Responsibilities should be devolved to the lowest appropriate level, so that local residents can clearly identify with the people making decisions and understand how those decisions come to be made.
But greater responsibility works both ways: councils must have the ability, on occasion, to get it wrong - and the local electorate must have the ability to remove those councils who don't get it right. This is why Conservatives will defend our current electoral system - it is the only system which maximises the ability of voters to kick out a government or ruling party that they do not like. This is democracy in action.
One of the foundation stones of Conservatism has always been a belief in the importance of the local hospital, the local school, the local club and the local town council. Edmund Burke called them the little platoons and as Conservatives we see them as an essential bulwark against the over-weaning power of the central state.
A Council's strength comes from the fact that its power is local, that the people who sit on it and work in its administration are local, that its knowledge is local and that its accountability is to local people.
Despite this, the last two years has seen one centralising measure after another, deeply disappointing the expectations raised by the Government when it was elected. There were many fine words, but few fine deeds.
For this reason I don't just want to offer you more words today. I want to talk of some firm plans to restore power to local communities.
I would like to announce today new common sense proposals from the Conservatives to reform the planning system.
In some ways it is the perfect example of the way in which Government is over centralised and how change can bring with it greater accountability and democracy as well as stronger local communities.
It is frequently an emotive topic, generating a vast amount of correspondence for MPs and councillors alike.
The current planning process, one built up over many years by governments of both persuasions, is weighted against local communities and residents. The system is centralised and bureaucratic, and often results in the Secretary of State overriding the wishes of local councils, forcing unwanted planning decisions on local communities.
The process is often inaccessible, complex and unaffordable for local people. The results can be lamentable, leading to uniformity of architecture, the loss of local character and inconsistency between decisions. Indeed, councillors are even forced by council officers sometimes to accept a planning decision under the veiled threat of expensive legal appeals.
The system is also detrimental to the environment. Since coming to power, the Government have given the green light to the destruction of greenfield sites and the Green Belt in areas such as Cambridge, Sutton Coldfield and Stevenage.
Indeed, the Government have all but admitted that the Green Belt is worthless in their eyes. Nick Raynsford said last April, 'where it is desirable in terms of urban extension and sustainability, there may be a case for reconsidering Green Belt boundaries'. This has the effect of encouraging more housebuilding on greenfields and fuelling a continued exodus of families and the highly-skilled away from our cities and from the North to the South.
Why are we building new towns on the countryside when many of our existing towns and cities are in need of urban renewal? Why should resources be spent on building new schools, roads and infrastructure for these new towns on the Green Belt, rather than using those resources to make our inner-cities places where people want to live and work? A truly 'joined up' government would appreciate that protecting our rural heritage and regenerating our urban communities are part of the same challenge.
To realise our pledges to promote both, under the next Conservative Government, I want to announce today our intention to undertake the biggest change in planning policy for fifty years.
First, rigid national and regional planning targets for housebuilding should be abolished. We will allow local communities to decide how many houses to build.
John Prescott is issuing diktats to local authorities to construct new houses in the form of Regional Planning Guidance. Despite the Government's claims to have moved to a new 'plan and monitor' process, the system is highly centralised and politicised. It is based on an old fashioned system of national targets which are in effect cascaded down to local councils.
Few things can create a greater sense of powerlessness than a community being told from on high how many houses it must build.
So the decision on how many houses to build should be taken by local communities, not by the Secretary of State. Instead, local authorities will be responsible for building sufficient accommodation to meet local population projections.
In other words, we will stop the current diktats that mean building houses in the wrong place for the wrong people. The Government's housing targets will result in new towns being built rather than our existing towns being revived. These housing targets are bad for the countryside and bad for urban regeneration.
The vast majority of current regional guidance merely replicates strands of national policy. We believe that regional planning guidance is an unnecessary level of interference in the decision-making processes of local communities. Instead, we will encourage planning coordination at a county level; we see little benefit in unwanted regional bureaucracy and interference from bureaucrats in Whitehall.
Second, local councils will be given new powers to preserve the character of their communities. We will allow councils to specify design controls on new developments. Local communities should be able to maintain the character of their neighbourhoods and villages in the face of new building. Let us have an end to identikit, uniform homes, and let us give discretion to local authorities to ensure architecture and materials are in keeping with our local heritage.
Third, we will remove unnecessary regulations and cut burdensome red tape. We will remove many excessively bureaucratic, statutory requirements from current development plans, and cut down on the 31 different plans that local councils have to submit. As the Chairman of Lend Lease Ltd has remarked, 'in my experience, all development plans are either not ready or are out of date.' For example, I can announce that local transport plans will cease to be compulsory - in Hampshire alone, its transport plan has cost over £100,000 to prepare.
Finally, we will grant local communities rights of counter appeal. Currently, developers can appeal against refusal of a planning permission even if the proposed development clashes with a development plan, but local residents cannot. We propose that local residents should have a right of appeal when there is a breach of due process or a development disregards a development plan.
We will also streamline the appeals system, reduce the role of the Secretary of State in planning decisions, and introduce a better system that ensures there is greater continuity, consistency and less politics in the approach adopted.
I hope this illustrates our commitment to reducing the over-regulation and the plague of directives which is infecting local government. It will be a fairer system, so that councillors are not bullied from taking decisions to protect their local environment from large developers.
We have other proposals to announce in the forthcoming weeks as part of the process of overhauling local planning - cutting red tape, protecting the environment, promoting urban renewal and giving greater discretion to local authorities.
We want to work with councillors to find other ways of trimming unnecessary bureaucracy and inspectorates - tackling the huge number of consultations and plans, which waste time and cost money.
However, the greater independence of councillors made possible by these sorts of measures and others, such as our capping policy, must be accompanied by greater openness and accountability.
At present there is a danger of going in the opposite direction.
Those who decide to have directly-elected Mayors and Cabinets need to ensure that they do not devalue the role of ordinary council members. Independent-minded councillors should not find themselves excluded from decision-making or have their role reduced to a mere rubber-stamping.
And scrutiny should not just be limited to one committee of councillors. Councillors must accept that the press and public have a fundamental right to be informed of what actions their council is taking, and how their elected representatives came to their decisions.
It is also vital that if councils wish to move towards Cabinet-style government, this does not result in more decision-making occurring in secret.
This is not a new preoccupation for my Party. Conservatives have a long record in defending openness in local government. In 1960, Margaret Thatcher moved a Private Members Bill in Parliament to give the press and public the right to attend council meetings. And her Government passed an Act which gave the press and public the right to see papers from council meetings.
We will not stand by and allow councils sidestep these Acts and have more meetings in secret. We are currently seeking to amend the Local Government Bill and we will stand by the rights and freedoms that the press and public have come to expect.
In addition, we must ensure that councillors are representative of a wide range of backgrounds. Conservatives believe there must be a healthy mix of people who choose to become involved in local government. We recognise the fact that many women are already involved in local government and play a very important role in voluntary work and local issues. With this in mind, we have launched an awareness-raising campaign to provide practical advice and help to encourage more women to become involved in local government and public life.
We want to ensure that men and women of ability and achievement are attracted to holding public office. It is vital that a good number of our elected representatives have everyday experience of the real world and of business. Whatever shape Councils take in future, and we want them to be of all shapes and sizes, we must not create a cabal of permanent politicians, out of touch with the world of work, amid a culture of secrecy. We want to ensure that councils represent a broad spectrum of public opinion from a variety of backgrounds.
It may be the case that councils may wish to have more evening meetings and fewer day-time meetings - to encourage more people with outside, everyday interests to become politically active. We should make the most of the opportunities that the internet provides to improve the way we work and communicate with local people. It is up to you today to seize the opportunity in ensuring your eventual successors truly represent your community.
We want to be sure Councillors are able to do the job for which they were elected and able to afford the huge sacrifices that have to be made to do the job properly. Yet we must look critically at attempts to give frontbench councillors five-figure salaries and pensions. Recently, in one council, the council leader was initially given a salary of almost £60,000 a year. After criticism from the local press, the council withdrew all job advertising from the local newspapers and launched their own council newspaper in an attempt to suppress dissent. By any reasonable standard, this was an unacceptable attempt to ignore and intimidate local newspapers' genuine criticism.
In another council, councillors' allowances were increased by £240,000, and some councillors were running up expenses of up to £15,000 in taxi fares alone, while at the same time, the council was calling for savings of £130,000 by closing down local libraries.
Such activities bring the reputation of all councillors into disrepute - at a time when politicians are often not held in high regard.
In conclusion, it is no coincidence that increasing centralisation in local government has accompanied increasing disillusionment with politicians, with many people almost giving up on the political system.
But restoring faith in politics means moving government closer to the people. Strengthening the role of local councils and local communities - not regional or central government - is the way to achieve this. Councils are not agencies of Whitehall.
By giving greater fiscal autonomy and discretion to local authorities, the worst councils will no longer be able to treat residents with contempt by blaming rotten services and poor value for money on central government.
Provided councils operate in an open and transparent environment, voters will be able to reward councillors who work hard and deliver on their manifesto promises, while punishing those via the ballot box who fail to deliver.
I hope today I have outlined the Conservative Party's common sense commitments to local government, local institutions and local democracy - restoring faith in local politics.
We cannot have proper local government without truly local institutions; nor can local councils operate effectively without proper democracy, scrutiny and accountability.
The last two years have seen the blooming of a new relationship between Conservatives and local government. But this is not a radical departure for the Conservatives - it's more a coming home.