In the shadow of Chancellors budget Sir Michael Lyons released his long awaited report 'Place-shaping: a shared ambition for the future of local government', looking at the relationship between local and central government and the future of local government finance.
Initial interest seems mainly to have focussed on the details of Lyons proposals for local taxation, and in particular the so called 'bed tax', a tax on the tourist accommodation industry. The Conservatives have strongly opposed the bed tax and have made it the focal point for a campaign to 'Save the great British holiday'. In the end the Lyons report does not recommend that this tax be implemented nationally but raises the possibility that individual councils may choose to implement it locally.
The Liberal Democrats have ignored teh bed tax and focussed their criticism of the report on the fact that it proposes to reform council tax rather than abolish it. The Liberal Democrats claim that the recommendations will actually worsen inequalities.
It is also interesting to see how many groups are keen to claim responsibility for influencing the outcomes of the report, ranging from the Local Government Information Unit, The New Local Government Network and the British Hospitality Association!
At Involve we were more interested to see what Sir Michael had to say about the relationship between local government, central government and citizens than the details of taxation. Some of the most interesting bits of the report seem to have been overlooked by most commentators. Lyons speaks of the role of local government as 'place shaping' and recommends a wide ranging transfer of power from the centre to the local level, and a far reaching shift in the culture of government, far more important in the long run then whether or not there will be a tax on tourist accommodation.
This shift in power could be crucial for local democracy. The UK is arguably the most centralised country in Western Europe, a situation which does little to encourage local activism or indeed trust in local institutions. When local councillors have so little power to begin with it is hardly surprising that some have reacted negatively to ideas of enhancing public participation in the past. Hopefully more power to local government will enable us to move beyond old fashioned views of power as a zero-sum game. However devolution of power without more open institutions might mean that all we do is replace one set of unresponsive institutions in Whitehall with other, equally unresponsive ones, dotted around the country's Town Halls.
Luckily Lyons also calls for councils to 'adopt a leadership style that engages local partners, facilitating, advocating, arbitrating and influencing rather than dominating.' He specifically mentions the need to improve the structures of public engagement, and for councils to be more innovative in their approaches. We were pleased to see that he mentions Participatory budgeting, which is clearly relevant to the area and provides an accountable way of dealing with controversial issues, such as the 'bed tax'. However, despite highlighting the usefulness of participatory budgeting, he stays clear of actually mentioning the method in his recommendations.
This blog is a repository for posts I have made over the years at Involve as well as more personal reflections.