England, this England – the tragedy of local government

As much of Britain prepares to go to the polls, Swift discusses the shortcomings of the current 'local government' system

Voltaire is said to have observed of the Holy Roman Empire in the eighteenth century that it was neither holy, nor Roman, nor an empire. (He was wrong on at least two of those three, but then he was wrong about quite a lot).

Swift has the same view of the term ‘local government’.

Local? Well the results of the elections this Thursday will be interpreted purely as a reflection of the popularity of the national parties.

Although there is much wailing and weeping about this, it is entirely logical. Those who will vote – a pretty pathetic percentage of those eligible in any case – fall roughly into two camps: a tiny proportion are those motivated by genuinely local issues – for which you can substitute the term ‘planning’ in most cases, at least in Southern and Western England; and the rest who have decided they hate/like Rishi and the Tories, or Sir Keir and Labour, and will take the opportunity mutely to state that fact.

And government? Well not really. We live in a highly centralised state, in which the primary task of effective local leaders is to extract as much as they can from the coffers of central government.

The income numbers are approximately half from Council Tax, and a quarter each from central government and business rates But it’s the Treasury back in London that really matters. When there’s a problem, you do not have a vibrant debate about local taxation, as there is a centrally-set limit on raising that. You have instead a blame game between the centre and the local authorities. It is as if the system were deliberately designed to avoid democratic accountability. Imagine that.

Some authorities have also in some cases decided to invest in speculative schemes leading, usually, to their financial ruin. That they were encouraged to do so by central government, despite their patent lack of business expertise, is not to this administration’s credit.

Since they are truly accountable to their own local activists, and beyond them to only to that tiny minority of voters who attend meetings and write letters to the local paper, for most local authorities, voting is a tiresome but regular ritual on the lines of sheep-dipping.

Swift is generous and kind of heart, so he will say that the gradual spread of elected mayors has injected some electricity into the Frankenstein’s monster that local government had become. It is welcome and should be extended. It also reminds us of a lesson from history that might – just might - shape a more positive future for local government.

In olden times, people in England would refer to what we call counties as their ‘country’. Local pride in the ancient counties was so profound that it was seen as fundamental to their identity. And this is why, Swift, believes, the creation of mayors has been a success.

Now the old counties have been mucked about and vandalised – a process that  began under those two villains, Edward Heath and Peter Walker in the 1970s. Perhaps they cannot be restored entire and perfect, as the hymn says. But the lesson is surely clear. People need to be able to vote for a large entity – hell, let’s call it a county - that controls all local services – away with the other petty levels – led by by an accountable individual.

We might not like what he or she does. There might be undesirable taxes, there might be policies of which we disapprove. But the responsibilities would be clear, the decision of the voters final, and the rascals would, in due course be evicted.

Local. And government.