I feel this post should start with a phrase like 'it's been six months since my last diatribe' but I shall soldier on with all the confidence and lack of awareness of the average blogger. 'Tis time, dear reader, to put my thoughts down in more detail than Twitter can allow about a subject dear to my heart.
I have worked in local government since 1994 (Pity me!) and I am now involved in research into care, which is an interesting if vexing subject since it centres around how to help people who need that help but with a pot which seems to shrink each year. My experiences over this time have led me to the conclusion that local government is a 'good' which millions of people rely on (drive a car? those roads you trundle along are maintained by someone. Create waste? Yep, you guessed it...) but one which has not grown and developed as it perhaps might have done had it been less constrained.
For local government is like a prisoner chained to a wheel, forced to carry out the same tasks over and over again but with less gruel as each day passes. Budgets are being cut year on year and needs are growing continually. The problem which I have concluded exists is the simple one about whether the questions being asked about local government are the right ones. Some thoughts on this can be summarised thus:
1. Budgets are being cut by central government. True, but is this the problem or is the problem that central government sets the budget for local government the greater problem?
2. Services are being challenged across the board. True again, but is the problem more that services are being prescribed by someone else rather than being led, amended and pioneered locally?
3. Local governments face limited and falling budgets and struggle to provide services they are required to. True - and where does this requirement come from?
4. Council Tax is a very bad joke and does not serve the purpose it was set up to address in any way, shape or form. The Tories designed it as a stop gap in the 1990s and Labour failed utterly to adddress the open wound it created over 13 wasted years. Er, do I need to add to this? Essentially, local finance is non-existent, coming mostly (75%) from central government.
Go down the pub and any number of old lags are happy to slag off the coalition and politicians - I'm often one of them. Perhaps we need to delve a little deeper and recognise that things are changing far more than is being given credit for. The 'fat' years have ended, the money has been squandered by the last government. The services people rightly came to expect after 1945 have moved too far from what was originally envisaged. The vicious, divisive forces of nationalism are threatening our very country. Why?
Local government is often expected to be a cure-all and it is also often a cosy club of retired people who give people the government they think they deserve.
So here's the essential issue I can identify: it's not the funding, it's not the service cuts, it's not democracy and the need for a mayor here or there, the issue is whether local government in England is fit for purpose or whether it is based on outdated principles, old structures and tired politics.
I'm not planning to be a lazy blogger and to leave it here but I do want to set out my thoughts for me to address. I hope this is a start to my own reflections.
NB: if you are reading this with an increasing sense of anger and dismay that I could possibly think such thoughts, allow me to offer you a single word by way of riposte. Rutland.