Three monkeys on the back of English fiscal devolution

The fiscal powers of English local authorities are extremely limited. In recent years there have been many proposals for significant fiscal devolution to take place, but little progress has been made on this agenda. In this post Mark Sandford argues that there are three fundamental reasons for this: the nature of the UK state, the complexity involved and equity considerations.

The mid-2010s have seen an unprecedented number of proposals for devolution of fiscal powers to local authorities in England. The coalition government’s ‘devolution deal’ policy, together with the substantial fiscal devolution granted to Scotland in the wake of the 2014 independence referendum, have encouraged many stakeholders to believe that English local government is on the cusp of a breakthrough in the balance of revenue-raising power between local and central government (Morrin and Blond 2015; Centre for Cities 2015). Some have produced reports containing substantial proposals for fiscal devolution to English local authorities (Centre for Cities 2015; ICLGF 2015; ICLGFW 2016; London Finance Commission 2017; EEF 2017). Associated concepts such as place-based budgets, raising borrowing caps, commercial councils and local government restructuring have also attracted attention as potential solutions to English local government’s financial challenges.

I suggest that these hopes and plans arise from an over-optimistic reading of the political landscape. Most of the key drivers of the apparent ‘devolutionary turn’ in England are ephemeral and highly dependent on ‘constitutional entrepreneurs’ and windows of opportunity. Developments in Scotland, Northern Ireland and Wales are matters of high politics. English devolution deals and the retention of business rates by local authorities were largely driven by former Chancellor George Osborne. Inertia and Brexit will drag hugely on all policy innovations in the 2017–22 parliament. The confusion of local administrative boundaries, public bodies and contested local identities have long frustrated strategic approaches to local governance in England.

But this type of political headwind is priced in by commentators. There are three more fundamental reasons why fiscal devolution in England was always likely to face insurmountable obstacles, which relate to the nature of the UK state, the complexity of the change implied, and to local equity. These have been largely lost in the warm glow of consensual causes such as inclusive growth and regional prosperity. They run beneath the day-to-day debate on policy solutions, and offer a more cultural account of the critical relationships at issue.

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The electoral implications of the draft Wales Bill

roger-scully

Last Tuesday the government published their draft Wales Bill. Among its provisions are devolution of control of the electoral system for Welsh Assembly and local government elections. In this post Roger Scully explains the significance of this.

It was all fun and games in Wales last Tuesday, as the draft Wales Bill was published by the UK Government. This putative piece of legislation has had quite a long gestation – a process that includes both the second Silk Commission report (published in spring 2014) and the cross-party talks that generated this spring’s St David’s Day declaration.

There has already been, and will doubtless continue to be, much debate about the draft bill, at least among the Welsh political class. I think it is fair to say, given the reception accorded the draft bill, that it is far from certain to become legislation at all, and certainly not in quite this form. The bill will need to go through both Houses of Parliament. It will also need to be supported by the National Assembly. At present, we are only at the stage of draft legislation, which will face pre-legislative scrutiny in parliament from the Welsh Affairs Committee over the next few months.

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Lord Adonis & Jules Pipe on Elected Mayors

Date and Time:  Tuesday 22 May 2012, 6.00pm

Venue:  Council Room, The Constitution Unit

Jules Pipe

The London borough of Hackney has had an elected Mayor since 2002, when Jules Pipe was elected into office.  Mr Pipe argued that Hackney faced series issues at the time; crime rates were high, the council’s finances were in a poor state, and educational attainment was low.

Mr Pipe recognised that before changes could be made in the borough, changes would have to be made to the council itself.  His first priorities were to reintroduce good governance and financial competence.  In practice this meant improving the lines of communication within the council, developing a shared vision, and pursuing the best value for money for the borough.

The new Mayor set high standards for his team, bringing in experienced people and fostering a performance management culture.  Their aim was to improve the services that would benefit the whole community, focussing on projects such as building new schools, resurfacing roads and improving public amenities.

In his view, it remains vitally important to work with other bodies, such as the Police and the London Mayor, to achieve the best results for Hackney.  Mr Pipe’s long-term goal is to improve the reputation of Hackney, so as to encourage commercial investment.

Lord Adonis

Lord Adonis explained how he first became involved in the campaign for elected Mayors after being invited to speak at the Lunar Society in Birmingham last year.  In his view, the city lacked a coherent vision for the future; what it needed was a Mayor to fight for Birmingham’s interests.

According to Lord Adonis, a recent study has shown that only 16% of people think they know who the leader of their local council is – and half of those get it wrong.  In his view, having directly elected Mayors would raise the profile of local politics, and improve local council accountability.

Despite the largely negative response to elected Mayors in the recent referendums, Lord Adonis believes that all major cities could have elected Mayors within 15 to 20 years.  He argues that the introduction of elected Police Commissioners in November will help the case for elected Mayors, as they will have some of the powers of elected Mayors.

Note prepared by Jeremy Swan, intern on the Unit’s Special Advisers project.

What next for Elected Mayors? Localism Catch-22

Boris Johnson may have won the Mayoral race in London, however the rest of England didn’t take to a “Boris for every city”. Nine out of ten cities participating in the coalition’s referenda on directly elected mayors (May 3) rejected the idea; only Bristol backed the proposals.  The referenda were also overshadowed by poor turnout rates with an average of 28.8% across the country and only 24% in Bristol. Given that localism is one of the coalition’s main drives, what next for the government’s credentials in this area?

The proposed “Mayors Cabinet” will unlikely go ahead now, but the mayoral agenda will certainly not end here. Liverpool and Bristol will “flaunt” their mayors to influence national policy as London has done in the last decade[1]. The coalition will do likewise to save face and rejuvenate their localism strategy. Other cities therefore may find themselves wishing for mayors and they don’t have to wait on another national referendum. Let’s not forget that Liverpool, Salford, Doncaster and Leicester have all appointed mayors in the last year through local referenda or local council agreement. The “big-bang” reform the coalition hoped for hasn’t quite happened but change is still likely to creep along. One idea gaining traction is “metro mayors”, which would look after transport, planning and policing across city-regional travel-to-work areas (an idea Lord Adonis will discuss at a Constitution Unit seminar on May 22). [2]

The low turnout raises deeper questions on public enthusiasm for localism. With only 28.8% of people voting nationally, can the government carry localism forward? Police and Crime Commissioners (PCCs) are due to be elected on 15 November, whose credibility will be questioned on a 10-20% turnout. Localism has good devolutionary intent but people need to feel involved. Citizens should have had a hand in shaping mayors’ roles before the referenda and we cannot be surprised that people voted against an office they did not call for with undefined powers, pay and job description.

Ultimately, the coalition has tried to provide the groundwork for a system few are yet interested in using and found themselves in a Catch-22 situation. How does one force localism from the top? To continue driving the localism agenda forward the government needs to gain this hard-face experience, and refocus on facilitating rather than imposing policy. Elected mayors may have a future yet, but it now lies in the hands of local communities rather than Westminster.

Is All Openness Local?

Following our report on FOI and local government in England, we have had some interesting reflections on how FOI works elsewhere.  One of the really interesting points concerns how users are often focused on ‘local’ access to issues that are of importance to them. High profile expenses stories aside, FOI is actually about making a difference at the level of your own street or ‘micro-politics’ as someone wiser than me called it. Could this also be the way for new Open Data innovations such as fix my street?

Here’s the FOI (or FOIL) view from New York state:

‘Our FOI law (known by many as “FOIL”) has been in effect since 1974, and this office was created as part of the law.  There are approximately 100 state agencies, but more important to most residents are the thousands of local government agencies, i.e., counties, cities, towns, villages, school districts and the like.  Most residents have little connection with federal agencies in their daily lives and rarely have occasion to seek records under the federal FOIA.  A few have relationships with and a need to gain access to records of state agencies.  But everyone has a need at some point to seek information from local government, perhaps in relation to an environmental issue, building code and land use issues, the assessment of homes and other real property, the means by which taxpayers’ dollars are used or allocated by school districts, the qualifications of teachers and other public employees, the effectiveness of law enforcement functions – – the possibilities are endless.

We have also found, in general, that the smaller the unit of government, the more likely it is to be open.  In short, there is direct accountability. Most residents here, in the capital city of Albany, would recognize the Mayor walking down the street.  Few would recognize their congressman.

In short, despite the focus on Washington and the federal FOI Act, I believe that a local access to information law,  such as the 50 separate state FOI laws in the US, or a law of general application that includes local government within its coverage, is of primary significance and utility to the average person.  Further, for reasons suggested earlier, local government officials are more likely to comply with law and to be accountable that those higher up in the governmental chain of command.’

See http://www.dos.ny.gov/coog/ for more information, reports and analysis

Town Hall Transparency?

Our new report on FOI and local government concludes that the FOI Act has made councils more open and transparent. Each year more and more questions have been asked with request numbers rising from around 60,000 a year in 2005 to nearly 200,000 in 2010.

Underneath the media headlines about senior officials’ salaries,  investments and the cost of dying, FOI is being used more quietly, day-to-day, by the public to find out about things that matter to them; allotments, parking, speed bumps etc., as you can see in these records of requests  here and  here (this one also lists requesters by type). Businesses are using it to keep one step ahead of the competition and national and local pressure groups are making FOI requests on all sorts of topics from zoo licences to libraries. It may even have helped to uncover a murder.

Some councils are more open and more at ease with FOI than others. A few have resisted and played games. Many are concerned it’s being ‘abused’ by businesses and journalists. Most of all officials are worried about how they will cope with rising request numbers with fewer resources.

Since January 2011 councils have published all their spending over £500 on their websites (see here). The government hopes this will give transparency an extra push and also motivate ‘armchair auditors’ to check where and how councils are spending and misspending our money. The response has been mixed. Some councils have had no interest in their data, while elsewhere local newspapers have exposed controversial spending on string quartets or libraries , as have a  few national newspapers . One official said the benefits are internal, as it has allowed councillors to understand their own budgets.

FOI and Open Data are working more and more closely with new online innovations, that allow data to be ‘mashed’ and sifted, and hyper local sites that serve as a platform for residents to talk about local issues. However, it remains to be seen if new technology and further local government reform helps or FOI or if it will be undermined by dwindling resources’.