Assessing the coalition's 'Programme for Government'

The new coalition have released their document Our Programme for Government. It's a broad document, and a little light on substantive detail, but there are sections on local government and transparency that deserve some attention. A few of the key points on local government:


    • We will promote the radical devolution of power and greater financial autonomy to local government, including a full review of local government finance.

This point is encouraging. We've long talked about decentralising
power and and in our new book, How to cut public spending (and still win
an election)
, Mike Denham outlines how fiscal decentralisation can
stimulate GDP growth. Of course, we await more detail on this but it's
certainly a start. One to watch.

    • We will abolish the unelected Infrastructure Planning Commission and replace it with an efficient and democratically accountable system that provides a fast-track process for major infrastructure projects

This is good news. This body has not been around for long but has managed to acquire all of the bad traits of profligate, sclerotic quangos. £9.3million on lavish offices, anyone?


    • We will freeze Council Tax in England for at least one year, and seek to freeze it for a further year, in partnership with local authorities.

A freeze is better than rising council tax. But several councils around the country have shown that council tax cuts are possible, with more rational and prioritised spending.


    • We will abolish the Standards Board regime.

We suggested getting rid of the Standards Board for England back in September 2009 in our research with the Institute of Directors. We reiterated this proposal in our book. Ethical elected officials in councils and other public bodies are obviously crucial; the scars from MPs expenses are testament to that. But transparency – in everything from finance to outside interests – will ensure accountability, without the need for an expensive and often ineffective body enforcing a code of conduct.


    • We will cut local government inspection and abolish the Comprehensive Area Assessment.

Again, one from our book. Centrally prescribed targets have cost money, as councils have scrambled to make sure they are looking ship-shape on inspection day. That panacea of transparency will solve a lot of the problems here, and will allow the Audit Commission continue its important work of detecting fraud and ensuring accounts are up to scratch.

On transparency, the document has the following:


    • We will require public bodies to publish online the job titles of every member of staff and the salaries and expenses of senior officials paid more than the lowest salary permissible in Pay Band 1 of the Senior Civil Service pay scale, and organograms that include all positions in those bodies.

Good stuff. We've published the Town Hall Rich List and the Public Sector Rich List for four years now, and finally our message has hit home. The last government did in fact introduce good legislation in this area, but our paper Transparent Rewards showed how many public bodies torpedoed it.


    • We will regulate lobbying through introducing a statutory register of lobbyists and ensuring greater transparency.

Our research on taxpayer funded lobbying showed that taxpayers were paying for public bodies and other organisations to lobby for even more money. This is unacceptable. A register is a start, but every move to stop taxpayers footing the bill for lobbying must be made.


    • We will strengthen the powers of Select Committees to scrutinise major public appointments.

Yes, but will this scrutiny be listened to? One recalls a couple of shoe-horned appointments by the former secretary of state for Children, Schools and Families last year.


    • We will require full, online disclosure of all central government spending and contracts over £25,000. And We will require all councils to publish items of spending above £500, and to publish contracts and tender documents in full.

These are fantastic measures, although it could be lower than £25,000 for central government. Windsor and Maidenhead publish all spending over £500 and it has helped them to reduce council tax by 4 per cent. Also, If contracts were made public this would encourage competition and would break the corporatist relationships that have developed between public bodies and contractors.


    • We will create a new ‘right to data’ so that government-held datasets can be requested and used by the public, and then published on a regular basis.

Right-to-Data sounds a little unclear. The proposal implies that spending data will be provided on request which is almost what we have with the Freedom of Information Act (FOI). There needs to be a cultural shift away from requesting spending data to the automatic publication of it. It should be standard practice for central and local government and will cost relatively little with modern technology. They do this in the US for federal spending, why not here?

FOI still has a role as it can be used for information that is not related to spending, too. The FOI Act was an important and very welcome piece of legislation but that it needs strengthening. In our manifesto we say that there should tougher sanctions for unwarranted delays, for example.

The verdict? Some encouraging noises but we eagerly await further detail.

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