The Localism Bill will radically change the involvement local communities have in decision making - a landmark reform that will do much to reinvigorate local democracy.
However, as has already been seen with salvos from the likes of Liverpool and Manchester councils, front line services are being axed with Central Government being blamed by local councillors and activists. As has been shown time and time again though, cutting front-line services is the easy option too many in local Government turn to, rather than taking a long, hard look at their own organisational structure and questioning how services are delivered.
For example, Wakefield council is scrapping more than 1,000 jobs, but as far as I can tell the chauffer driven car the leader of the council enjoys, and the council’s own newspaper, are not for the chop just yet.
So how do we deal with this situation? I propose something very much in the spirit of the Localism Bill - abolish the cap on council tax rises.
At present, the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government has the power to cap council tax increases. This year, the cap is 3.5%.
Tax has been off the political agenda since Tony Blair’s victory in 1997 and the (entirely symbolic) pledge not to raise income tax. But in times of deficit - where crudely the choice is between increasing the money coming in (tax rises) or to decrease the amount going out (spending cuts) - or a combination of the two - why not make tax part of the debate again?
I’d go even further - legislating that every ballot paper in the local elections must detail the increase in council tax proposed by the leading party, allowing the electorate to decide for themselves.
If, as many on the left tell us, the general public are outraged by ’savage’ spending cuts, why not give them the choice to pay for the services they wish to keep, but that can presently not be afforded?
In a situation like the Forgemasters loan, rather than running to central government for help, elected leaders could make the case for increasing local taxation to provide funding.
Many on the left are quick to point out about the reductions in frontline services, and how apparently this will reduce Britain to some kind of stone-age country, but they avoid with fervour any debate about how to pay for their community cohesion officers or regional spacial strategies. They aliken councils cutting council tax to evil privateers, overlooking the fact the public seem to quite like having their tax bill cut - and are far from up in arms about service provision.
The arguments around spending cuts are only one side of the coin - let’s make the debate full and open, and bring tax into it with equal weight. Those who want to expand Government can argue to do so, and the public decided on polling day whether or not they want to foot the bill.