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When Whitehall holds the purse strings councils are left with spin

Suffolk County Council leader Mark Bee pledges that his council will not increase its taxes next year in an interview published on the front page of the East Anglian Daily Times today.

EADT front page "no tax increase, county pledge"In truth this is spin — the council has no choice. Whitehall has whispered a mafia-like offer into Mr Bee’s ear.

He heard the grant from central government would increase by 2.5 per cent provided he did not raise council tax. In other words, Suffolk would have to increase council tax by a huge amount to produce even a tiny increase in income from it.

I feel sorry for people like Mr Bee who go into local government because they want to make a difference but find themselves puppets of central government. They are in the business of “local management” rather than “local government”.

They are so dependent on central government funding that their job is not to provide a vision which their electors are prepared to pay for,  but to work out the least damaging way of implementing central policy.

The indications from today’s story in the EADT are that Suffolk is looking at how to make the best of of an unpleasant task, cutting £53m from county spending.

The concentration on cutting back management and the the fixed costs of property to protect, so far as they can, frontline services is welcome. It is also a time to look in every pocket in the wardrobe for money which can be used help pay for services.

The Treasury announcement that the government would find £805m to “persuade” councils not to increase tax is here.

James Hargrave has also picked up on the this topic saying: “We may just as well disband the County Council and save some money. It doesn’t even have the power to make meaningful local decisions (even if it wanted to).”

I am not sure I would go quite that far. But we do need to free local government from the shackles of Whitehall.

James also looks at the matter of democratic debate which I considered yesterday. He was not at Tuesday’s cabinet meeting but writes:

I have however attended previous Cabinet meetings and they are truly depressing for anyone who believes in democracy. Almost every decision is unanimous and there is nothing that would pass for real debate. “Self-congratulatory” is the word almost everyone used of the proceedings.

I guarantee you that your local parish council, village hall management committee, school governing body, cricket club you name it would be a much better place to look for democracy than Suffolk County Council’s cabinet.

He puts much of the blame on Labour’s move to cabinet government which, in the absence of opposition, is fundamentally undemocratic.

I also wonder whether modern photocopiers should take some of the blame. The papers I took away (there were more) from cabinet weighted 570g (1.25lb). It is not surprising that many councillors appear not to have read all the documents.

Providing all the information available has long been the bureaucrats way of protecting their backs. I welcome the depth of information available but it is time for the council to move to all electronic delivery with summaries hyperlinking to source material.

It would save a lot of trees too.

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