At the same time changes are under way which will mean that each local council gets to keep its own business rates. That has been made to sound like a useful bit of flexibility that has no great impact other than giving local councils more control. It is actually a deliberate transfer of funding from poorer authorities to richer ones where there are more and bigger businesses. Which also means a transfer of funding away from the north to the south. Cuts for places like Barnsley. Relative increases in funding for places like Kensington. Not my idea of how to create a northern powerhouse.
The idea behind all this is a pretty simple one. If central government imposes austerity directly then it gets the blame. If it asks local government to impose the austerity for those cuts then someone else gets the blame. If most of that austerity is inflicted by local councils in local areas then it hurts Cameron's political opponents. As he and Osborne see it that is a win win.
Many of the cuts will be achieved by cutting payments to organisations that are funded by the local councils in order to provide services for local people. These charities are going to have an even worse time of it than they have already had. There was a time when Cameron talked a lot about the importance of the big society. Under his government the voluntary sector has experienced the heaviest cuts ever in vital grants and payments from local authorities. Even more cuts will mean that more voluntary sector organisations will go out of business. Even ones that Cameron once vaunted and tried to foster without bothering to check properly what they were actually delivering have gone to the wall. The kids that could have been looked after with the money sent to Kids Company I feel for. Camilla Batmanghelidjh less so.
At the same time as massively cutting back on local government income Osborne has decided to try and force through the creation of mayors in order to create local leadership. It is hard to understand why an elected mayor represents a major step forward in local leadership when the already existing local elected councils are being denuded of powers and funding. Unless, of course, we look to the politics. The best way of covering up all the cuts to local government is to create a confusing distraction. Change the labels and re-organise to look like you are doing something useful whilst actually generating a demoralising atmosphere of endless top down generated pointless bureaucratic change.
Local councils are being told that if they collaborate together to create new organisational units then, so long as they agree to an elected mayor, they can have control over a large delegated budget. This looks and feels to the local councils like an offer that can't be refused at a time of major budget cuts. But in reality all that is being done is to take existing funding that is already being spent in the local area and re-label that money. Not a penny of new money is being sent to the councils who accept a mayor. What they are getting is a share of money that is currently spent by government departments or government quangos in their area. An academic from Sheffield calculated that this means around 0.1% of government spending in the locality will be devolved. Again not my idea of a powerhouse. http://speri.dept.shef.ac.uk/2016/02/04/the-devolution-revolution/
The comparison with the past is striking. In the nineteenth century local governments became important powers represented by serious heavyweight political figures who were quite happy to devote their entire careers to working to build up their city or their region. Conservatives like Chamberlin in Birmingham built their life's work around this and did many very good practical things. Old fashioned one nation conservatism came out of that largely successful experience. Now we are stuck with two nation Conservatives.
In the 20th century there were many excellent examples of Labour leaders who tried to take the localist approach much further by doing first class work in poor communities. They devoted their entire lives to implementing useful solutions to the problems of ordinary people and were not remotely interested in material reward. I have just finished reading an excellent book that documents the work of one of them.
Graham Taylor's biography of Ada Salter tells the history of a woman who did fantastic work in practical social projects, local government and the environment in Bermondsey. It reveals achievements of an inspiring woman who was successfully elected to positions of power and influence in London at a time when that was really difficult and then actually did something useful with that power. She was able to improve housing, health, the environment and education and insisted on trying to bring some beauty and greenery in one of the poorest parts of London. How many people do you know who would actively choose to live as well as work in a dirt poor community even if that meant exposing themselves and their children to the very real risks of the diseases of poverty? Ada lived and worked amongst the people she was determined to help and her only child died of scarlet fever.
Compare that kind of lifelong dedication to a cause with the work of let's say Tony Blair. It isn't a flattering comparison. People are fed up with their politicians for a reason. It isn't just that governing is a hard job and it is inevitable that you will be disliked. Running local services can be a really good way of doing something constructive with your life. But too much of politics has ceased to be about ethics or about looking out for a particular community. Instead it has become about narrow promotion of a brand.
Political figures aren't interested in putting in the hard yards of making sure things work locally. The few that are tend to be well respected locally even when they have been discredited nationally. Ask Sheffield folk about Blunkett for example and you'll still find surprising levels of respect for the work he did when in local government. Ask folk from across the country about his national work and you won't get that same sense of affection because he got swallowed up by the Blairist machine.
One of the saddest thing about the current government is that they have learned the wrong lesson from the experience of the last Labour government. They could have seen the hollowness of narrow short term self interest and decided that they did not wish to be remembered for lying and making the flesh crawl of the majority of the British public. Instead they chose to learn the techniques of manipulation. They have learned to use every announcement to maximise publicity and directed every penny of money that they possibly could to their political supporters.
Cameron and Osborne didn't see a moral bankruptcy that needed to be fixed. They saw a strategy that they could adapt for their own purposes. Politics under Cameron is about narrow self promotion and narrow party interest. He refuses to recognise any achievements of his opponents or any weakness on his own side. He is extremely reluctant to say that he might have changed his mind or still be thinking about an issue and only does so when he thinks it will help him cover up for something else. We are still being governed by soundbites and favouritism.
It is not a recipe for building long term trust from the electors. It is bad enough that his politics are so far to the right that he is busy dismantling the welfare state that Conservatives like Churchill and McMillan played a strong part in creating. What is so much worse is that he is busy finishing off the last vestiges of trust that any conventional politician could actually be sincerely committed to working to make things better for the people they serve.
We have been ruled by machine politicians for so long now that there are few people left who can remember being helped by a politician who did something useful. Like creating a national health service or building good quality council houses or actually improving schools instead of politicising them. Small wonder that we are seeing the rise of people like Corbyn and Saunders and also scary figures like Trump and Le Pen.
People are looking for someone they can actually trust and unless the left wises up and starts delivering local and national representatives who try and do constructive work in their communities without thought for their career there will remain a risk that dangerous demagogues will lead us into some very dark places indeed.