John Redwood is not everyone’s cup of tea, even within the Conservative Party, and while I don’t read his blog that often he has an interesting post today.
Asking (but not answering) the question Do Councillors want to be free? he discusses the problems of officer led authorities:
Labour arrived in office in 1997 keen to give Councils more powers, only to sink them under the biggest weight of circulars, regulations , controls and money with strings attached that local government has ever seen. By April 2010 local government in the UK was just the outpost of Whitehall in each community, implementing Labour’s policies across the board… there is a generation of senior officers in local government who only know how to work under Labour’s top down down target driven highly bureaucratic system. Their first impulse when they hear of the Coalition’s changes is to ask “What have they put in place of whatever the government is scrapping?” “What does the government want us to do instead?”
And he’s absolutely right. There’s a real problem with officer-led authorities that don’t, by definition, react well to political change. Time and time again you see council’s change political complexion because of an unpopular administration, only for the incoming party to do pretty much the same and be just as unpopular. The reason is often because the officers are in charge and the politicians haven’t got a grip.
Wandsworth is almost unique in managing, all the way back in 1978, to wield political authority of councillors over officers and making the council different enough for people to have a good reason to vote Conservative, rather than going back to Labour, in the 80s. But for every Wandsworth there are dozens of other councils where it doesn’t matter who wins the election, the officers are still in charge.
But part of the problem, to answer his question, is that I think many councillors do not want to be free. If you’ve just got your feet under the desk after years in opposition it must be incredibly daunting. There will be a certain comfort in following the advice of officers, they are, after all, the experts. And soon you’ll have got on top of things and can take control.
The problem is that your window of opportunity is small. While I have faith in the government to continue its localising agenda I also know that the lesson of history is that every government centralises.
After removing the ring-fences of so many grants Monday saw the announcement of, yes, a ring-fenced budget. Once the health reforms are through public health spending will be ring-fenced.
Hopefully not a sign of things to come, but perhaps a warning to newly elected leaders that they shouldn’t waste a second in making their marks.