Counter council controls

28th January 2000 at 00:00
Gillian Shephard, the former Tory education secretary, argues that the role of local government should be slimmed down, to make it more accountable.

THE role of local education authorities regularly features in debates about the future of state schooling. It is less frequently debated within the context of the future role of local government.

Local government is in deep trouble. Such is the overlap between national and local functions, and so unrelenting is the interference from Westminster, that local government today has an uncertain role.

Strong local democracy is an essential element of a democratic state. But it can be effective and respected only if it is truly accountable and its processes transparent. The system in England today is not accountable, not least because of its finances, and it is burdened with a range of functions for which it is no longer suited.

Central government directly controls, through grant and the business rate, three-quarters of local government spending. There is, therefore, no link in the public mind between what is spent, what is provided and who is responsible.

Control of its own finances is essential if local government is ever to regain respect and recognition. But, since it accounts for a quarter of all public spending in England, there is no prospect whatever that any government will allow any institution other than itself to control such a slice of the national spending cake.

Central controls and requirements are reaching strangling point; councils are obliged by the present Government to produce (so far) no fewer than 26 plans, ranging from early years development and behaviour in education, to carers and law and order, to transport. They are to produce 124 Audit Commission performance indicators and 43 quality indicators for children's social services.

In addition, the Department of Health has produced 48 indicators covering the whole range of social services. With the proliferation of quangos, executive agencies, executive non-departmental bodies and the impact of devolution, the effectiveness, transparency and accountability of local democracy have all but disappeared.

Yet, enthusiasm for the cause of local government continues. In many areas, local government does deliver.

Function and finance are the keys to restoring accountability. The reforms of the last government, continued by the present one, developed financial management to school level. If say, 98 per cent of schools spending were devolved to school level, a sizeable slice of funding would disappear from local government.

Similar changes at the functon level have been taking place in social services. Three of their functions - care of the elderly, care of those with a physical disability, and care of the mentally ill - are clearly health related.

The overlap, particularly for the consumer, between the bodies providing care in the community, causes confusion. These could be delivered more efficiently through the NHS, through health centres or GPs' surgeries and directly funded from the centre. For the other functions of social services, care of those with learning difficulties and for children at risk, I propose a different solution.

Colleges of further education have been doing valuable work with people with learning difficulties. I would propose that this responsibility be given to the FE sector with, if necessary, input from the voluntary or health sectors for living arrangements.

Children at risk pose a special problem for our society. The need is for an accountable, sensitive and essentially local service which can respond quickly to crisis. LEAs are well placed to undertake this work and schools, suitably resourced, to monitor children at risk.

Such arrangements, together with the further creation of housing associations, would result in a reduction of local government finances, currently standing in England at pound;50.6 billion, of more than pound;20bn. Yield from council tax was this year around pound;14bn - the shortfall could easily be accommodated by savings in social services establishments, LEA staffing and so on.

Councils would, therefore, not receive any government grant at all, unless the centre wished them to undertake specific tasks. What council tax payers get, they would pay for. Councillors would be truly accountable for what they provide.

Education and most of social services would be nationally provided and locally delivered. Central government would be accountable for what it spends on both services. Democratic scrutiny would take place in Parliament.

The effect on LEAs would be as follows:

they would be part of a slimmed down structure, whether part of a shire or unitary council

they would retain a strategic role in the planning and provision of school places, the improvement of standards and the general direction of education provision in their areas

in addition, they would have responsibility for children at risk.

Most important of all, they would be part of a revitalised, reformed local government structure, whose accountability and responsibility was clear, and which would be protected from central government-imposed confusion and overlap. It is a prize worth winning.

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