“40 years of hurt…never stopped us dreaming!”

On the decline of local government – and why opposition parties need to come up with radical policies that can reverse this decline knowing that HM Treasury will try to block anything they suggest.

You can read Unlock Democracy’s report Forty years of decline here. As Cllr Sam Davies MBE (Ind – Queen Edith’s on Cambridge City Council) said in Hard Decisions, the contents page summarises why this happened.

Cllr Davies then discusses the council motions at Cambridge City Council (see items 7b and 7c). She also highlights the reports from the EU which compare local government autonomy across OECD countries.

Self-rule index for local authorities in the EU, Council of Europe and OECD countries, 1990-2020 <<– Have a read. The findings make for grim reading for the UK. Also account for the different sizes of countries. The people within area of Greater London as far as population is concerned is numerically the equivalent of a mid-sized European country. Which is where the Conservatives and the UK political establishment forgot how the rest of Europe – especially the smaller countries, see the importance of the EU as an institution. Far more cost-effective for say the Republic of Ireland (population 5million in 2021 according to the report) to make use of EU diplomatic representation on international institutions and smaller countries around the world than to try and replicate the UK’s international and diplomatic network of embassies and consulates across the world. That alone is a very strong reason why for the smaller countries at least, there is a very strong incentive to keep the EU together.

Remember too the failure of the doctrine of collective security under the League of Nations in the 1930s – of which the UK was supposed to be the main pillar of strength. Many of the smaller countries that emerged from the First World War succumbed to the dictatorships. This was a huge contentious issue in UK Party Politics with the Conservatives and Labour having two very different visions of the UK’s place in the post-WWI world. Have a read of Labour’s policies from back in 1923 here.

On centralisation, and the funding of local government in England

This remains a contentious issue and one that politicians of all parties that have been in UK government have refrained from addressing since the 1990s while in office. Otherwise we would not be stuck with a system of local property taxation indexes to house prices from 1991. Any political party aiming for government must have a comprehensive policy to address this. It’s party political cowardice for them to dodge this question.

“Why centralisation?”

Part of it comes back to the post-war settlement and the failures of local government to do what senior ministers demanded, and the lack of faith from senior ministers in local councils to achieve their policy objectives. Hence the establishment of the National Health Service as a separate institution rather than – as the Conservatives wanted at the time, the whole thing delivered through local councils. Note the same mindset is at play with Labour’s proposals for a national care service. Rather than dealing with the much more complex issues of local government powers, structures, finances, revenue raising, and boundaries, it’s far easier politically to hive off a controversial service area into an agency of central government run by a chief executive appointed by a minister. See also Homes England – previously the HCA and before that the Housing Corporation.

Cllr Davies says:

“It’s uncomfortable for any political party to admit weakness, for fear that opposition parties seek to exploit that admission. But I believe now is the time for politicians of all hues in Cambridge to level with residents, very directly and very bluntly, about the scale of the challenges our local government is facing, and the fact that it has so few tools to stem the decline. “

Hard Decisions. 16 Oct 2022 by Cllr Sam Davies MBE (Ind – Queen Edith’s)
There are some full council meetings coming up soon

Huntingdonshire had theirs on 12 Oct 2022.

“Whitehall’s localism is ‘meaningless’ for local government”

That was in 2012 when Sir Howard Bernstein, the Chief Exec of Manchester City Council said that Ministers and Whitehall had a limited understanding of local government. It was a familiar criticism of the civil service from my days inside the system – and I found out why this was when working on local government reform over 15 years ago. A London-based civil service is unfamiliar with two-tier or even three-tier working in local government, especially in rural areas. Which seems a little strange given some of the distances some of them live in and commute from.

If we follow the money, we see examples of how so much rests on ministers deciding when to loosen the purse strings. Take Growing Fenland.

“The Growing Fenland project is part of the Cambridgeshire & Peterborough Combined Authority’s Market Towns Programme, aiming to maximise the regeneration of Fenland’s market towns – March, Wisbech, Chatteris and Whittlesey.”


The Combined Authority gets its money from Central Government. In the case of buses, ministers declined the funding bid for the proposed Bus Service Improvement Plan. This isn’t devolution. If it was, the funding would already have been devolved, and the decision on whether to approve the expenditure would have been taken by an elected assembly responsible for scrutinising the elected mayor. But we don’t have that. We have the worst of all worlds of a system pushed by the then Chancellor George Osborne in 2015/16.

The very poor transport infrastructure links in Fenland have been long-standing. Dealing with those is in the “too difficult” category. and has been for too long. Yet the location of the proposed Fens Reservoir at Chatteris brings a once-in-a-century opportunity to change this.

“A Greater Peterborough Light Rail should be built as part of the Fens Reservoir Project

You can respond to their consultation via the documents here. Interestingly – and although it didn’t get much traction, the proposal for a Peterborough light rail got support from the city’s Liberal Democrats.

Such are the levels of economic deprivation in Peterborough and Fenland that such a light rail line or network would need central government funding. Is this something that the Conservative MPs past and present have made the case for?

Above – my ‘front-of-a-G-Maps’ concept for a Greater Peterborough & Fenland light rail loop

If the case can be made for, and construction could begin on a light or suburban rail loop incorporating Ramsey and Chatteris, the case for a Greater Cambridge loop from Ely in the East, and Alconbury/Huntingdon in the West (i.e. the end of the Guided Bus Route), become much more powerful.

In other countries it would be regional level governments that would be dealing with this. It would not need central government intervention. It should not need central government intervention for anything other than maybe funding. Which is why overhauling local and regional government has to be part of any deals in constructing light railways for our towns and cities – as we will need to do because of the climate emergency. If we don’t do that, then the Department for Transport has got a huge number of municipal light rail projects to manage from London.

Good luck with that!

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:

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