“I am proud to have stood on a platform of cutting taxes” said the man introduced to a fringe meeting at the Conservative Party conference this week in Manchester as “one of the best known and most radical Council Leaders”. It was of course Stephen Greenhalgh who shared a platform with Chelsea & Fulham MP Greg Hands, also the Parliamentary Private Secretary to George Osborne, the Chancellor.
The title of the meeting was an anorak’s dream – “Local Government – are we being radical enough?” Cllr Greenhalgh rose majestically to his feet and declared “No.” before resuming his seat, provoking a flicker of panic across the chair of the meetings face – it was of course a joke, and the big man continued on to deliver a speech that was far from being anorakish and actually made a lot of sense.
It was a big problem, he said, that the way local government is funded divides an elected local authority from the people who elected it. This is because faceless civil servants sitting in central government decide how much central funding local authorities receive based on formulas that nobody – perhaps including them – actually understand.
And hang on, where does this “central funding” come from – not some magic pot – no, said Cllr Greenhalgh, it comes from local people as well. His argument was in favour of sweeping away the civil servants and allowing local authorities who promote economic growth in their local areas to keep the proceeds of that growth to use according to local people’s priorities. Not to do so was not simply a problem of not delivering the right services, it was a basic challenge to local democracy he said.
Cllr Greenhalgh actually described calling “friends in high places”, referring to Mr Hands, as one of the means by which H&F had managed to ensure that they could deliver the tax cuts without losing some of its grants from central government. We saw this dramatically revealed in a hand written note to Planning Minister Greg Clark over the West Kensington estate, recently of course. So it was useful to have such friends, said Cllr Greenhalgh, but it shouldn’t be necessary – the system should be straightforward, simple and rooted in local areas. In other words, he said, local government needed to be “freed” – leading to more responsive authorities, incentivised to “go for growth” in the local economy and to use the proceeds to improve local people’s lives.
The fact that H&F had reduced taxes year on year by 3% and delivered on local people’s priorities was, Cllr Greenhalgh argued, the reason why they had won the last local elections – and he drew pointed comparisons with some nearby Labour run authorities who tax proportionately more and yet, he claimed, deliver much less.
This was very much in keeping with what central Government has in mind and Greg Hands paid fulsome tribute to Cllr Greenhalgh’s tenure at the top – he described the cheers he’d received from the Tory benches in the House of Commons when he declared that one of his local authorities had been successively cutting taxes. He had of course himself been the Conservative Opposition Group Leader in H&F for the 2002 elections won by Labour, and you got the sense that still rankles.
Mr Hands continued on the theme of pride by noting that both he and Cllr Greenhalgh had recently been declared among the top 100 influential people in local government, but he continued to say how his friend was there to “challenge”. He said Cllr Greenhalgh regularly challenged central government on its plans and ways of working, and paid tribute to his courage in doing so.
“It took a lot of balls to stick your neck out at the time and go against the grain”, said Mr Hands referring to Cllr Greenhalghs determination to cut council taxes, saying that central Government had not in the early days decided that council tax cuts were the way to go. The implication was clear – George Osborne’s announcement this week of a council tax freeze across the UK, and the clear determination from central government to bring those taxes down at local level was at least in part because of Cllr Greenhalgh’s pushing them to do so.
So here we have another example of how H&F is at the centre of Tory thinking on how to deliver local government across the UK, and the reason why the spotlight is set to continue on our small neck of the woods.
I had to leave the meeting early to get back to the day job (apologies due to Greg Hands for not staying to the end of his speech!) but it left me with the thought that Cllr Greenhalgh in particular would do well to show a bit more of this side in public locally as he does at national level. It is clear he is a combative and challenging thinker who has an agenda to reshape the way local government works – that is a good thing and much of what he says makes a lot of sense. But the face that local people often see, particularly those on the receiving end of our Council’s notorious local planning decisions, is of a combative Council Leader …. determined to combat them.
Greg Hands made the comment that the overall level of council tax spending across the UK has declined by 4.4% - but he challenged anyone to show examples of actual service delivery having fallen by 4%. This was the agenda of do more for less – and its clear we are going to see an awful lot more of that in H&F, with the eyes of the country upon us.