Local government is desperate for reform

In the brave new world that was promised following the election of the first Labour Government for eighteen years back in 1997, one of the Blairites major agendas was the reform of the public sector.

One area in particular, they believed, was ripe for renewal and modernisation – local government. The establishment of a Greater London Authority, with an elected Mayor, a Scottish Parliament and a Welsh Assembly were all delivered pledges in double quick time.

But, with the passing of weeks, months and then years, the importance of sorting out the mess that is our current local governance structures was pushed further and further down the pecking order, as events, dear boy, events, consumed New Labour, and they became like so many before them – an administration that react to events, rather than shape them.

But the reform of local government, and indeed the wider public sector, is still as relevant today as it was twelve years ago. If not more so. Downtown Liverpool in Business has campaigned for a streamlining of the vast array of organisations involved in business support, economic development, regeneration, education, training and planning.

The City Council went some way in meeting our demands, with the merger of three agencies into one – Liverpool Vision, Liverpool Land Development Company and Business Liverpool. But that still leaves over seventy organisations involved in some way or other with issues of governance and administration. In Lancashire, things are even more confused. Downtown established a branch in England’s newest city, Preston, eighteen months ago.

It must be the only City Council in the country whose main responsibility is to empty its residents bins! All the major strategic decisions are taken by the County Council, and they are only one of fifteen local authorities in Lancashire. Yes, fifteen. Add to that Town Councils and Parish Councils and you will understand why I believe there must be a better way. Labour was right to believe back in 1997 that the public sector had been under resourced.

But, Gordon Brown and his Treasury colleagues pushed ahead with a public sector spending spree without insisting on the modernisation and reform that was so desperately needed and should have gone hand in hand.

And with the announcement that the Government plans to ‘spend, spend, spend’ its way through the current economic downturn, many in the public sector could be forgiven for feeling insulated from the ravages those in the private sector are struggling with. However, they should be fearful for their medium, if not immediate, futures.

There is a growing resentment around what people increasingly perceive as a bloated, inefficient and smug sector. Whilst private sector jobs are being cut, numbers employed in the public sector are increasing. Public sector pay is better, on average, 13% higher than in the private sector.

Pensions are more attractive and fully protected, hours worked are shorter, and redundancies fewer. New graduates that may once have seen their future as part of an entrepreneurial drive and enterprise culture are reportedly flocking to the safety that is public service.

It can’t go on, and the next Government, of whatever colour, will be forced to take action to reverse this unfortunate trend.Capping executive pay is an easy option, and one that the current administration should take immediately. There needs to be a longer term strategy to downsize local government too. More elected Mayors, single-tier governance across the country and a massive reduction in Councillor’s would be a decent start.


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