Don’t throw the baby out with the bath water

I was largely encouraged by proposals announced this week by the Conservative Party for the reform of local government. Entitled ‘Control Shift’, the green paper outlines a series of measures aimed at transferring powers from central government to local people and local institutions.

Downtown Liverpool in Business has long argued for an elected mayor for Liverpool. The Tories have promised to provide the electorate in all large cities with the opportunity to choose whether to have an elected mayor, through mayoral referendums.

I also welcome the idea of creating bottom-up incentives for house building, by allowing councils to benefit more from the increase in council tax revenues from new homes; and the suggestion of giving local authorities a new discretionary power to levy business rate discounts, allowing them to help local shops and services.

I’m less convinced, though, about the anti- regional tone of the paper. I cannot think of anything worse than local councils having more power over planning issues. Applications that are heard and decided upon at a local level already suffer from ‘nimbyism’ and scrutiny by local Councillor’s often starts with the question ‘Is this good for my electoral prospects?’ rather than ‘Is this good for my city?’

That being said, few would notice the abolition of the North West Regional Assembly, an organisation that I once led, and had ambitions back then of being as powerful as the Welsh Assembly. Instead it has become an invisible talking shop with few real powers. The Northwest Development Agency, on the other hand, is well regarded by the business community, and has often come to the rescue on strategic matters across the region, with particular effect in Liverpool.

Its intervention in the Culture Company; its work to help fund the transformation of the docks, including the development of the new arena, and its pro active help in supporting businesses in the last few months, deserves recognition. Hands up, DLIB works closely with the agency, but independent auditing of its work has found that it not only provides value for money, but also out performs all other RDA’s.

When any new government is elected, they want to sweep away anything that was created by their predecessors. But change for the sake of it is not to be recommended. And, I will put money on this, something at least as expensive, and probably less effective would have to be established to replace the functions of the NWDA should the threat to abolish it be carried out.

Overall, though, ‘control shift’ is an excellent contribution to the debate on the future of local government and how public services are delivered at a local level – and how businesses can be more effectively engaged and supported. I await with interest Labour’s response.


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