Local pressure points

12th May 1995 at 01:00
In so far as there was a key policy issue at last week's local elections, it was education. And, although it is less obvious how far this weighed in the voting booth against a great wave of national dissatisfaction with the Government and its political and social mores, the two cannot be easily untangled.

Now that local education authorities have been stripped of much of their responsibility for the management of schools, and with their financial powers arbitrarily determined by national spending assessments and capping limits, there is little scope for policies of their own, and the electorate has grasped this reality.

Thus the issue this spring for parents and public has not been whether more schools should be urged, or forced, out of local council control (an opting-out policy still forlornly espoused by our visionary former Education Secretary John Patten), but how much money should be allowed to be spent on staffing the schools still attended by the majority of their children.

Perhaps for the first time this year, school governors and parents have been able to follow clearly (through their own familiarity with school budgets) how the Government's failure to fully fund the teachers' pay award has combined with spending caps to threaten teachers' jobs and push up class sizes.

In areas where low reserves have made the position acute, many campaigners have made it obvious that they believed the blame should be placed on national rather than local government for the local effects of such policies. It has indeed been evident that many involved would be prepared to pay a higher council tax, if capping limits could be relaxed and any new money ring-fenced for schools. And though this situation has tended to arise mostly in the shire counties, which were not voting as such last week, it has manifested itself in their district councils, which were. Although they have no direct control of education (unless they have just emerged in new unitary guise), some of their Tory councillors up for re-election were so embarrassed by education cuts that they stood as Independents this time round.

The critical question now is how both levels of government respond to this particular message from the voters. Those Tory backbenchers representing shire constituencies who have already been pressing for the relaxation of capping limits have now been joined by others with more mixed motives about true local democracy. What they are after is not so much pleasing parent voters, as giving left-wing councils the chance to spend, spend, spend, and dish themselves with many more voters before a general election.

There are several points at issue here. Ministers, shaken by the strength of parent protests, were already hinting of just such concessions in November's spending statement and may be glad of support to swing the issue with the Treasury. And then there is the nice point that it is hard to accuse leftie councillors of abusing their powers if you haven't left them any powers to abuse.

For new Labour councils, as well as the Liberal Democrats, there is also a serious test ahead. After the last swings of local power, many took the opportunity to build up nursery policies, something which the Government has been forced to follow.

Similarly sober and constructive policies will be essential this time round, especially if spending limits are eased in the autumn. Otherwise, the Blair effect could prove most vulnerable at local level.

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