Who is really calling the shots in your local council? Is it the leader of the council, the chief executive, the majority party, the cabinet, the officers ,the councillors, the trade unions ( no not these days) or non of these? Central government has always sort to control local government even whilst promoting devolution, localisation and elected mayors. It has always been a source of frustration to the PM of the day and their government that their wishes could be thwarted locally by a council whose majority party was opposed to its policies. Central government prescribes the powers of local government and attempts to control local government through the allocation of funding and an auditing and inspection regime that names and shames.
You pay your council rates but this makes up a very small part of council funding most of a councils budget comes from central government. All governments like to mess around with the formula for funding local authorities, creating winners and losers to fit their agenda. For the last ten years they have dramatically underfunded local authorities , forcing councils to make drastic cuts to services, reduce the workforce and outsource services.
It doesn’t matter who is running your council to day they will still be closing libraries, leaving pot holes unfilled, introducing fortnightly bin collections and saying they haven’t enough money to run a safe child protection service or support growing numbers of older people suffering from dementia.
In this context the decision of the Labour Party to have council leaders elected by the local party and not as is now the case by councillors, seems peripheral if not irrelevant.
However the purpose is clearly to ensure a labour council leader follows the agenda of the local party. But councillors are responsible to the electorate as well as their party. The problem is that when you get into power you have to work with central government even if its a Tory government, you have to work with the private sector and you have to accept that members are elected to represent their constancy not just follow the party line. If you defy central government, refuse to implement policies you don’t agree with and set illegal budgets rather than make cuts then your council will be taken over by a government appointed team. The leader and cabinet members will be prosecuted/ surcharged and debarred from office. You can’t let your political principles disadvantage the people you were elected to serve. Any way how would labour members feel if a Tory council adopted the same defiant stance against a labour government?
Blair Mcpherson former local authority director, author and blogger www.blairmcpherson.co.uk