With a Little Help From Our Friends

Author: City Mayors   |  

The challenges affecting the balance between central and local governments are common to all societies. Local councils the world over are concerned about finance, performance management and structural reform. However, recent evidence shows that Britain is one of the most centralised in the developed world when compared to its peers.
The With A Little Help From Our Friends report was compiled by centre-right think tank Localis and sponsored by the Local Government Association of England and Wales. The report benchmarks English local government against a peer group of diverse sub-national systems in other countries, namely Australia, Canada, Denmark, France, Germany, Holland and South Africa. The purpose of the report is to illustrate how such a comparative understanding can contribute to the goal of a more balanced central-local relationship in England.
In spite of recent promises by politicians of all parties, Britain remains one of the most centralised states among the advanced democracies, if not the most, according to the report. In part this is a reflection of Britain’s informal (ie. unwritten) constitutional arrangements, local councils’ lack of clout at national level and the imbalance between their considerable functions and narrow tax-raising powers (leading to dependency on centrally-allocated grants). While other systems may not be transferable to the British context, understanding how they work is vital towards learning from their successes, it argues.
The report concludes in drawing up a series of demands based on the practices found elsewhere during the study and recommends these as a basis for action to bring about the same kind of step change as experienced in France over the past three decades:
1) a resolution of Parliament to entrench the role of local government in the British constitution, drawing on the European Charter of Local Self-Government
2) local government to be represented in a reformed House of Lords
3) special parliamentary procedures for legislation affecting local government, with a right for local government leaders to speak in committee
4) a more mixed form of local government funding, including a reformed council tax, a relocalised business rate and an income tax element
5) fairer funding for any new burdens placed on local government, with councils able to act as an equal partner in any negotiations with central government
6) central government grant distribution to English local authorities to be handled by an independent grants commission
7) scaling back of central government performance management of local councils
8) a wider review of powers over skills, employment, infrastructure and economic development, with these passed from unaccountable agencies back to local councils

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