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The future is analogue, says local government’s Honey Man

The future is analogue, says local government’s Honey Man

🕔25.Feb 2015

By one of life’s pleasing happenstances, at least for those of us in Birmingham, the publication of the final report of the Independent Commission on Local Government Finance, Financing English Devolution,  coincided precisely with The Rep’s highly successful staging of Tyrone Huggins’ play, The Honey Man. Chris Game reflects on the Commission’s findings. 

Darra Singh, the Commission’s Chair and former chief executive of Ealing and Luton Councils, bears little physical resemblance to the St Kitts-born author/actor, but, if his report has the transformative impact he obviously hopes, he could reasonably claim in, say, a decade’s time, to have been English local government’s Honey Man.

Huggins’ play is about the unfolding relationship between an ageing, Caribbean bee-keeping recluse and the fractious, pot-smoking teenage daughter of the Shropshire aristo whose derelict estate cottage he and his bees have covertly colonised.

But it’s also about Huggins’ abiding interest, explored in a quartet of plays he calls his Digital Projects, in the notion of analogue and digital personality types and their fundamentally distinctive ways of viewing the world, rather than simply craving or scorning the latest iPad.

Digitals see the world in terms of ones and zeros, black and white, right and wrong answers, clearly defined systems; analogues understand and deal in approximations, probabilities and muddle, 50-plus shades of grey.

As interpersonal communication media become more digital, our spelling, punctuation and grammar become more analogue. Government is similar.

Tony Blair’s New Labour administration was going to be analogue – “what counts is what works”, as the party’s 1997 manifesto proclaimed. But in practice it meant: what counts is what works like I think it should.

Successive governments – ministers and civil servants both – have tried for years to run local government as a single, centrally controlled, one-size-fits-all digital system. ‘Honey Man’ Darra Singh’s message is that, while local services will be delivered increasingly digitally, the delivering ‘system’, insofar as there is one, will be increasingly analogue.

Huggins’ Digital Projects have not been that extensively performed. Even so, it would be hard for their collective impact to have been any less than that of the first three efforts in the Local Finance Reform Quartet: the Layfield Committee (1976), the Balance of Funding Review (2004), and the Lyons Review (2007) – as Paul Dale’s blog on the report usefully reminded us.

All three started from the premiss that the status quo is unsatisfactory – lacking transparency, fairness, balance and accountability – and major reform vital. Yet all were either ignored or, in Lyons’ case, attacked and effectively rejected by ministers within hours of publication.

This time, the reflex rubbishing was administered by Local Government Minister Kris Hopkins, who immediately dismissed the Commission’s proposals for local areas to determine the number and value of council tax bands and for tax increase referendums to be abolished.

No change there, then – and clearly there won’t be from the present Conservative-led coalition. The question is whether the new lot after May accept that this time the Commission really isn’t crying wolf: that the future now facing many, if not most, councils – severely less money, increasing and more complex service demands, and cripplingly limited scope to raise additional revenue – really has regressed from unsatisfactory to unsustainable.

And recognise too that, following grant cuts of 40%, radical reform is no longer urgent but imperative – if, that is, anything resembling a viable, democratically accountable, service-providing local government sector is to have a future.

There is, and always has been, an alternative: the full-scale Contracting Council, envisioned by some Conservative ministers in the 1980s and now apparently to be realised in Northamptonshire.

Northamptonshire County Council, employer ten years ago of nearly 20,000 full and part-time staff, plans in future a workforce of 150 max, with services formerly provided by the council or by council-run companies and partnerships being commissioned from external organisations: a children’s services mutual, a ‘place-shaping partnership’, an ‘accountable care organisation’ for vulnerable adults, and so on.

It’s analogue service provision alright, and pioneering, but not in quite the form the Commission’s final report sets out. Nor last October’s interim report, although, reflecting the quite startling speed with which events have moved since the Scottish independence referendum, the two documents do have differing emphases.

The interim report underlined the need for council tax reform and for a desperately overdue property revaluation and banding revision.

But the headlines it earned were all about how, through full – rather than the present partial – retention of business rates and appropriate ‘equalisations’ between richer and poorer councils, English local government could by 2018-19 become financially self-sufficient and independent of central government grant funding.

There was a certain interim vagueness about how these equalisations would be managed, and a somewhat cavalier assertion (p.18) that “there is less disparity in wealth between the different parts of the country than in often assumed.”

The brief equalisation discussion, though, like the report generally, focused on individual local authorities, even down to numbers of toppers and toppees: “On 2018-19 projections, self-sufficiency would require 247 councils to ‘top up’ 106 councils. Most of this could be managed through transfers between councils in the same area.”

There was a passing reference to combined authorities perhaps playing a part in this redistributive process, but otherwise no mention of these institutions that since then have so dominated local government discourse – while the Pioneer Authorities that, as Paul Dale’s blog described, take centre stage in last week’s report weren’t even embryonic.

Paul suggested a full implementation of the Commission’s blueprint would constitute “a seismic shift away from Whitehall and Westminster to the great cities and regions of England”, and, of course, he’s right.

Following a 10-year devolution programme, more than £200 billion of annual public spending would be controlled at ‘sub-national’ level – or twice the current total of English local authorities’ net revenue service expenditure.

The key analogue feature of the Commission’s programme is what tekkies would call its two – or variable-speed gearbox. All councils would have multi-year funding settlements, freedom to set council tax and tax discounts, and would retain 100% of business rates and business rate growth.

But there would also be ‘Pioneer’ authorities: combined authorities wishing and judged able to reform at a faster pace. These could vary council tax bands and undertake their own revaluations, have access to new or devolved taxes like stamp duty, tourism and airport taxes, and, most significantly, would control single place-based budgets covering a full range of public services, including health, transport and community safety.

As the Honey Man’s Commission notes, the analogue principle of variability has already been established, with city deals and devolution packages to Combined Authorities. These latter are clearly the key – which is why the honey coming the West Midlands’ way so far is mostly still the unblended stuff, while Greater Manchester is already onto the organic.

 

image: The Honey Man, Birmingham REP and Judy Owen Ltd

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