The government has started a public consultation on abolishing all of the several hundred local government statutory duties. The principle is to abolish all and only re-instate them if forced to.
Examples of what the government wishes to scrap are: all local government scrutiny and overview committees; all local authority responsibilities regarding health and safety, public safety, fire, building regulations etc; the requirement for local government cooperation across boroughs, city and county boundaries for public health (remember foot and mouth?); local authority duty to provide libraries; responsibilities to control gambling and licensing.
The list impacts on: housing, building, museums, libraries, social services, highways, environmental protection, children’s services, public health, crime, coroners’ services, provision of morgues and freedom of information requests. Local authorities are most keen to abolish the last of those, so that secrecy and dirty deals will become easier and more commonplace.
Local authorities’ response is epitomised by that of the cross-party London Councils, which believes “that the general presumption should be that all duties be abolished unless there are compelling reasons not to remove them” and in “reducing avoidable costs”. Let the market and small interest groups take control and by all means cut costs.
Hiding behind the talk of modernisation, reform, making services accountable to local communities, affordability and decentralisation are forces intent on destroying quality provision of longstanding, tested, safe and transparent public services.
Right to challenge?
A related proposal, the “Community Right to Challenge”, sounds like some civic-minded do-gooders’ charter. In reality it’s another facet of the Localism Bill being rapidly driven through Parliament. The Bill will map out extensive privatisation and outsourcing of local government services, in England only. This will allow any not-for-profit organisation or any two employees working in the public sector to demand that the service they have identified or work for should be market tested for privatisation. If the challenge is upheld, the public service will be privatised, effectively without opposition.
The fragmentation of public services provision, the loss of the present economies of scale and services provided on a city or county basis, along with the loss of democratic influence and control, will devastate historic English local government spanning centuries, with parish-pump councils challenging city and county structures.
Driven by the EU, this is one of the greatest asset-stripping exercises since the privatisation of Britain’s nationalised utilities. All assets belonging to local authority services, if we allow it, will be distributed to private companies or local interest groups. It’s a deliberate recipe for chaos and community disintegration. ■