The Budget speech reflects how dependent local councils are on central government.

The Chancellor’s speech also illustrates how the process of setting Government Budgets are broken – unless you like party political theatre and the hot air that comes with it

Would the country be better served by a less-exceptional process? Jill Rutter makes the case for a more transparent process with fewer surprises here.

In what felt like a long speech, the Shadow Chancellor Rachel Reeves rinsed her opponent Rishi Sunak over the impact of his proposals on the working population.

In the meantime for single, childless, unable-to-work-full-time-chronically-ill-me, the IFS didn’t report much joy either!

A common theme – this on social care, which makes up a large proportion of county council budgets.

What the Chancellor has gone and done is simply enable hard-pressed local councils to raise council tax bills – even though this is a regressive tax that disproportionally hits the poorest.

But as a party-political move, it means all of the other parties get blamed by the public where they are the ones in control of a council. This is because council tax is not deducted at source as with PAYE. Thus you feel the hit more when you have to make the payment rather than never seeing something in the first place.

“What about…[insert name of policy area]?”

As always happens at budgets.

“What about apathy?
(What about us?)
I need you
(What about us?)
What about nature’s worth?
It’s our planet’s womb
(What about us?)”

Earth Song by Jackson, M. 1996

It’s strange how the year I took my GCSEs is a life reference point for so many things for me. (Anyone remember Jarvis Cocker getting into trouble at The Brits during the performance of that song?)

The past few days will have been spent by Treasury Ministers and civil servants trying to work out the best way to bury the bad news in the small print while political reporters spend the rest of the afternoon trying to work out where they are buried.

What climate conference?

Caroline Lucas MP (Greens – Brighton Pavilion) was furious. And with good reason.

Continuing the freeze on fuel duty and the increase in support for domestic flights were two very puzzling announcements from the Chancellor.

Would it not be far better to hit domestic flights with a climate change levy and/or a frequent flier levy, and use that revenue to invest in the rail network?

Separating the local government from the state as other countries do would result in a number of things, including the focus of journalists moving towards local government for things outside of the competency of central government. For example local bus services. With the exception of subsidising services in areas that cannot raise the revenue, it should not be the job of central government to tell councils they can only use private firms to provide bus services. Bus privatisation meant prices rose and the number of services fell. A decision taken on ideological grounds by the Conservatives in the 1980s.

Metro Mayors having to go cap-in-hand to junior ministers for funds

Cllr Anna Bailey (Cons – Leader of East Cambs District Council) gave this monologue at the latest Combined Authority Board Meeting. It’s worth listening to.

To recap, the aims and objectives of the Combined Authority are here. They include:

  • doubling the size of the local economy
  • accelerating house building rates to meet local and UK need
  • delivering outstanding and much needed connectivity in terms of transport and digital links providing the UK’s most technically skilled workforce
  • transforming public service delivery to be much more seamless and responsive to local need growing international recognition for our knowledge based economy
  • improving the quality of life by tackling areas suffering from deprivation.

This is what ministers signed off with the leaders of the participating local councils. As I’ve mentioned in previous blogposts, I was opposed to the forming of the Combined Authority in the first place – I still am. I’m of the view that Cambridgeshire should be broken up into 2-4 unitary councils (which also means abolishing the existing Cambridge City Council & Cambs County Council) with far greater powers and finances. But if this is the only short-medium term route to getting a light rail underground for Greater Cambridge, we’ll have to work through it.

It wasn’t just at the meeting on 27 Oct 2021 that Cllr Bailey asked Mayor Dr Nik Johnson about his vision. She did so at the previous one, and I wrote about it in August 2021 here. Asking difficult questions in this forum is Cllr Bailey doing her job, and the Mayor giving his responses is him doing his. That is how the system was designed. Even though I have huge issues with the structure not being the same as what they have for Greater London. If you are going to have a directly-elected mayoral model, you need to have a separate legislature to be responsible for scrutiny and for passing a budget. Note the Chancellor today had to finish his speech with the phrase: “And I commend this Budget to the House”. That is him formally asking for the House of Commons collectively to approve the proposals for taxation and spending that he has put before them. Technically it is the Second Reading of the annual Finance Bill. Which means at the Committee stages, MPs will be able to table amendments to the legislation. (Given the size of their majority, this won’t be a problem for ministers).

One of the Conservative District Council leaders also mentioned how the Mayor for the West Midlands had a much longer term plan for transport and said that Mayor Dr Nik Johnson needed to show similar ambition. Mayor Johnson replied that he simply did not have the budget, and that this was the reason why he scrapped the CAMMetro proposals of his predecessor – for which he has a mandate from the electorate. But as this article in 2020 by Jonn Elledge shows, the margin between a pipe dream/fantasy, and an inspiring vision that can be delivered is a very fine/narrow one.

While I think Mayor Johnson is being too cautious (Remember I want the Cambridge Connect light rail model with bells and whistles), I completely understand why he is exercising that caution. The Budget he has at present is minimal. In the case of both mayors, they still have to go to Central Government and negotiate with a junior minister (who has to negotiate with The Treasury given the sums involved) to get the spending approved. As with the Police and Crime Commissioners – whose precepts are on council tax so still hit the poorest the hardest, and can only raise limited funds, the elected offices of these county figures cannot hide the fact that the power remains largely with ministers.

If you are interested in the longer term future of Cambridge, and on what happens at the local democracy meetings where decisions are made, feel free to:

%d bloggers like this: