A lot of familiar noises

THE Government s much-trumpeted Local Government White Paper was published the other week. Its impact is enough to make a damp squib seem positively earth-shattering. It contained the usual sound bites about allowing local people more influence on decisio

THE Government's much-trumpeted Local Government White Paper was published the other week. Its impact is enough to make a damp squib seem positively earth-shattering.

It contained the usual sound bites about allowing local people more influence on decision-making that affects them. But we have heard these noises so many times before. However, we still get Government inspectors reporting to ministers who can then overrule local elected decision-makers. Watch this space for what the minister finally does as a result of our local representatives rejecting his call for our regional house-building target to be increased even more. Do you think we will end up with more or less than the figure accepted by us in this area?

There is also some more familiar stuff about strong leadership and directly elected mayors and council leaders. Given the chequered history, thus far, of the directly elected mayor idea, I was quite surprised that it is coming back again. As I recall, we had one Robocop and a monkey elected on that system. I could quite believe that, if people like David Beckham or Graham Norton put their names forward as directly elected mayors, they would get in with quite large majorities.

Although the Government is pushing still for directly elected "leaders", at least the present system for the election of council leaders by their peers is to be allowed to continue. But the White Paper wants them to have a four-year term instead of facing annual re-election. From my personal perspective, that has a certain appeal. However, what if the leader turns out to be a disaster? Is the council to be stuck with him for a full four years? The annual re-election process provides some kind of safeguard, and I suggest we would want to think hard before changing it.

If the Government is so sold on the idea of a directly-elected leadership, why not go for a directly-elected Prime Minister? No prizes for guessing how much support that idea would attract in Downing Street.

Some of you will have noticed that the idea of two-tier county areas volunteering to change to unitary status has also re-emerged. As before, we will not be volunteering. We would rather concentrate on improving the cross boundary working under the present system.

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I cannot understand quite why the Government rushed to publish this non-event White Paper just before the appearance of the Lyons report into the financing of local government. Finance is such a vital part of the way local government works that I cannot see how other minor twitches to the system could even be considered before that report appears in December.

I would like to make one forecast about what the Lyons Report will include. I will lay money that, whatever system of finance it comes up with, it will cost the average Cambridgeshire resident a lot more. The Government knows that a large hike in local authority spending is required to allow them even to stand still. Central Government cannot afford to give any more money, so householders are going to be taken to the cleaners. No doubt one of Mr Lyons's essential criteria has been set as making it impossible to make year-on-year comparisons of household contributions.

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