I was first elected to Barnsley MBC in 2006 and although it was only a few years ago it seems as though I have been there forever. Shortly after I joined one long-serving Member asked me what I now know is one of the test questions for people who wish to make a career out of local government. You have a bath full of water and are given the choice of a bucket, a tea cup or a spoon with which to empty it. Of course a normal person would simply pull out the plug but those who choose the bucket on the grounds that it is bigger than the other two qualify to become Councillors and those who opt for the cup are destined for high office. The few who are so inspired as to choose the spoon are marked out to become Chief Executive!
The Member who told me that was the same one who, when I asked why Latin was not taught in the Borough’s schools replied. “Nay lad, then they’d know what t’motto meant!”
So what is local government? The starting point of today’s local authorities was the Municipal Corporations Act of 1835 which replaced a hodge-podge collection of different bodies with curious operating practices, usually run in secret by a small self-perpetuating clique. In fact some were so secretive that their business was conducted under oath of silence. The new corporations were made up of members elected by the ratepayers of the respective districts.
This Act was replaced in 1886 by new legislation which enabled local authorities to do many more things, such as enact by-laws, acquire land and buildings or borrow money. They were also enabled to do other things for the general good such as in the case of Barnsley, run the town’s gas supply and sewerage. The Local Government Act of 1974 changed the landscape once again and created the structure we see today, sweeping away the old County Borough along with the West Riding County Council and all the rural and urban districts. The late and unlamented South Yorkshire County Council survived a mere ten years before its abolition in 1984.
There are various models of council in England today. Areas like Barnsley are single tier metropolitan authorities and each is divided into smaller areas called Wards represented by three Councillors elected by thirds for terms of four years. This is why we have elections three years out of four. Elections are very important as they give you the power to choose who gets the blame! I remember when I first stood for election getting some sound advice. The less you promise the fewer people will be disappointed. Standing for election, especially in a rural area also gives one a healthy respect for dogs and you learn to rattle gates before going into farmyards for example. If a dog is running loose it will soon show itself. I went to one recently where one of the two large Rottweilers tried to gnaw through the bars of a galvanised steel gate.
Some mostly rural areas also have parish councils with limited powers and functions
Then there is the two tier system where there is a large County or Shire council covering an area of several smaller district councils. Counties usually have all out elections every four years and districts operate a range of electoral methods; sometimes by thirds, sometimes by half and sometimes all out. In two tier authorities some functions are carried out by the districts, such as planning and waste collection whilst the Shires carry out the more strategic functions such as education. Normally these two tier arrangements are employed for large sparsely populated areas like North Yorkshire where the metropolitan model would be too remote from the electors.
Something which has sprung up in recent years has been the new unitary councils. These often operate within a Shire but incorporate the functions of both district and county in a single body. They were popular with the last Government although cynics might argue that this was because they were usually formed in areas with a predominance of Conservative councillors and thus had the effect of reducing Conservative numbers in the Local Government Association. The Secretary of State in the Coalition appeared less enthusiastic and shortly after the election he scrapped plans to create new unitaries in Norfolk and Exeter saving the £40 million+ cost of reorganisation.
Some authorities have adopted an alternative system with a Mayor directly elected for a period of four years where one person exercises executive power subject to the scrutiny of a largely non-executive Council.
A one-size-fits-all approach to local government is impractical given that areas differ so widely from one part of the country to another. Councils and councillors need to be close enough to their electors to have a genuine appreciation of their needs and problems. The authority needs to be large enough to enjoy the economies of scale and to have enough members to carry out all its functions irrespective of its composition as well as being accessible but not too large as to become unwieldy.
Something which has happened in the last decade has been changes to the way in which Councils make their decisions. Until recently this was through a system of committees overseeing the various departments and made up of elected Members pro rata to the composition of the Council. A system which gave every member an opportunity to influence decisions before they were made. Now most Councils operate a cabinet system with a leader and portfolio holders for each department. This does speed up decision making but concentrates power in the hands of a few Councillors and their senior officers, has led to an increase in managerial posts with more and more decisions delegated to officers. Some of us believe this allows them to run amok without adequate supervision and means that whoever wins the election the same people run the authority!
So what do local authorities actually do today? Collect domestic and some commercial waste, maintain some roads, operate social services, support but increasingly do not run schools, operate a planning and building control service, sweep the streets, licence taxis and sex shops, run cemeteries and crematoria; the list seems endless and even if I were to try and recite them all I would miss some. In short they do all those things which need doing to maintain the local infrastructure but which central government cannot do and which the private sector could not do at a profit. People’s expectations of what the Council should do for them never cease to amaze. Take one man who thought we should provide an indoor swimming pool in his village. As Councillors of course we are never really off duty. Every time I go into the supermarket I find I am holding a surgery. I remember a couple of years ago we were in Lanzarote and my mobile started ringing. My partner answered it and the man at the other end who was somewhat inebriated started asking her if she could find his wheelie bin as it had been stolen!
How do you pay for all this? Apart from dearly! You will all be aware of Council Tax, the bills for which usually drop through the letterbox in March. In Barnsley for 2011/12 Council Tax accounted for around £83 million of the Council’s £195 million income. The Council also collects rates from businesses but does not set the level. This money is remitted to the Treasury and re-circulated to all local authorities according to need along with other Government funding to make up what we call the Formula Grant. This damping is necessary because some areas do not generate enough income to be self-sufficient especially places like Barnsley where the Council Tax Base is low and the level of business is also low.
If anyone is still reading I am flattered as talk of Council Tax Base and Formula Grant is usually enough to make most people look around for a rusty knife with which to slash their wrists! To put it simply the base is low where the majority of properties are in low bands, like Barnsley, and this consequently generates less income than areas where it is high. Additionally, areas which are business centres produce a lot of business rate while those which have become dormitories, again like Barnsley, do not.
It is this which accounts for the seeming inequity in grant distribution. Barnsley for example is receiving £477 per head of population, (2011/12), compared to £764 for Labour-controlled Liverpool and £263 for Conservative-controlled Solihull yet both are single tier Metropolitan Authorities like ours. Some people try to make spurious comparisons to show that Barnsley is being unfairly treated but these should be viewed with some scepticism especially when they use Shire Councils as examples and look only at percentage reductions rather than per capita allocation. Compared to some, mostly Labour-controlled authorities like Liverpool, Knowsley, Hackney and Newham, Barnsley fares badly and the previous Government did nothing to address the inequality.
Why does the Council Tax always seem to go up more than inflation? That is one of the most frequently asked questions. True in Barnsley like most areas it has more than doubled over the past 13 years although for the first time there was no increase for 2011/12. There are a number of reasons some outside Council control and others a direct consequence of past spending decisions. Wage settlements have until recently ratcheted up the pay bill without any corresponding increase in productivity as has the incremental system. Then there have been extra responsibilities foisted onto Councils by both Government and EU. One example has been to tax us for disposing of our own waste, another has been to make us spend £750k on mercury abatement at the crematorium.
Some sections of the press are quick to find examples of money wasted on crackpot schemes, non-jobs and political correctness. Yes, these do exist but only account for a fraction of expenditure and in any case are being cut now. Good for grabbing the headlines but less effective at balancing the books. But then criticism was never inhibited by ignorance.
Then there has been the practice of embarking on expensive regeneration projects and new buildings all of which necessitate borrowing. This is where some of the chickens now coming home to roost were first hatched.
When we look at a local authority’s budget there are some things which cannot be cut because they are a statutory requirement and others, like servicing the borrowings, which do not go down just because revenue is reduced. This means that a disproportionate share of cuts must be borne by what we could call discretionary services and it is these which are most noticed by the public.
So where do we go from here? Well, one thing is certain. The days of free spending are gone for good. Councils will have to learn to live within the means of their residents and if they are to provide the levels of basic services which we all expect they will have to find new ways of working. One option which is being actively examined is sharing services across two or more authorities, another is for councils to be more pro-active in marketing the services they can provide. For example, schools now manage their own affairs but have to contract out services such as payroll and this could easily be done by local authorities rather than outside companies. Or commercial waste collection where at present some private companies are cherry-picking the easiest business.
These and other things are under active consideration but maybe I need to explain something about local government jargon. Under consideration means we have lost the file; under active consideration means at least we are trying to find it!
Now, how long will it take us to empty the bath?