There is an interesting post over at ConservativeHome today by Cllr Neil Reddin from the London Borough of Bromley. In it he argues that the TaxPayers' Alliance should set up a consultancy which could charge councils for advice on how to save money. It's a point worth answering, and the article raises several other important points about the role of the TPA as a campaign group.
First, let me make very clear that we have no intention whatsoever of becoming a consultancy. Not only is this not our function, but it would frankly be hypocritical for the TPA to sustain itself by harvesting taxpayers' cash. As has already been pointed out, there are already an army of local government management consultants and sadly their ability or willingness to produce sizeable, radical savings for councils is currently proving questionable.
Ultimately, the TPA has a different, more fundamental function. We don't believe it is desirable or indeed possible for one body to personally micromanage every council around the country into doing a good job at a lower cost. Instead, we believe it is necessary to change the structure of local government and public opinion on tax and spend.
Government after government makes the mistake of thinking that the best way to solve a system which is malfunctioning is to try to personally micromanage every decision, process and policy right around the country. Arguably, many of the problems in local government today are down to Margaret Thatcher's decision to centralise control of local government finances and policies because she felt that "loony" local councils were getting things wrong. However, the huge rise in council tax in recent years twinned with the continued implementation of policies that local residents oppose but are not allowed to change demonstrates that that approach hasn't worked.
It won't work for an individual like the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government or an organisation like the TPA to promise that they can somehow order everyone to do things correctly. Instead, you need a system where far more policies are controlled locally, where local decision making is directly accountable to the people of the area and where the majority of the council's money is raised locally. Local populations must be free to run things as they wish, even if the Government, or the TPA, think they are getting it wrong, as long as they are also paying for their decisions.
Whether such radical structural change happens or not, achieving lower taxes and better government also requires public support. People would like to have lower council tax, but the TPA have a responsibility to demonstrate where spending is excessive or inefficient so people believe tax cuts are possible. That is why we carry out the Council Spending Uncovered series of research papers every year, providing national comparisons that no-one else has ever produced for how every council across the country spends money on publicity, pensions, payroll and senior management.
It is telling that despite the huge scope of these reports, dealing as they do with over 400 councils for each paper as well as the technicalities of each policy area, they have not been challenged in terms of accuracy. Using Freedom of Information Requests, councils' own accounts and painstaking checking and re-checking, our numbers are accurate and reliable - whether you agree with our conclusions or not. Indeed, we have a standing invitation to councils that if the numbers are wrong we will gladly correct them, and we have only very rarely needed to do so.
One criticism which councils do raise is actually something that only they themselves can solve. Whenever figures are published, a host of councils are guaranteed to cry "but you should see the detailed breakdown, then you'd understand that some of it might be justified". We would love to be able to get even more detail about how each council's spending breaks down, but we're limited by the culture of secrecy that currently surrounds public expenditure, meaning that even using Freedom of Information laws it is a huge logistical and occasionally legal battle to get councils to release the data. Changing that culture and making council finances fully transparent automatically is a major priority and is something where councillors themselves must take the lead, and we are happy to support them in doing so.
For example, I had the privilege of visiting Windsor and Maidenhead council recently to support their announcement that they will be publishing every item of expenditure over £500 (pictured right). We're enthusiastic about supporting other councils that want to do this, and as Cllr Reddin suggests I'd be delighted to meet with any councillors of any political stripe across the country who are interested in doing the same thing.
In fact, we regularly meet with councillors, and have an open invitation to any council who would like us to come and speak to their group or local party association about the way in which things can be improved to provide better value for taxpayers.
All too often, local politicians try to dodge legitimate criticism of their local administration by simply blaming central government. In return, Whitehall and Westminster blame local councils for everything going wrong. The truth is that responsibility is shared between the two and neither should be let off the hook - it is right that we should criticise each when criticism is deserved.
To achieve our aims, the TPA wants to work productively with politicians at national and local level. Increasingy, Ministers and Shadow Ministers are supporting our work on local government, for example all three main parties now support transparency on town hall senior staff remuneration. Correspondingly, I would urge councillors to get on board with the TPA's campaigning - particularly to get reform of the flawed and failing influence of national government on local authorities.
It would be a missed opportunity for local government if they allowed themselves to be so irked by occasional criticism of local policies or pet projects that they refused to team up with us to campaign against the flood of regulations, directives and meddling forced on them by Whitehall. My message to councillors is this: we may not always agree on everything, but together we could achieve a huge amount to free you from central Government's dead hand and to free taxpayers from all the costs and disappointment that brings with it.