The Trabant wasn’t a totally dreadful car, or at least it wasn’t when first launched in 1957. It was cheap, easy to drive and repair, and for its size it could haul a decent load.
Problem was that by 1991, it remained essentially the same two-stroke, 26 horse power motor it had been back in 57. In East Germany innovation was just too difficult. It didn’t have the investment in research and development; it didn’t have a culture that encouraged critical thinking and experimentation. And people weren’t able to look over the borders at what others are doing and copy them.
East Germany was too heavily centralised for that, all important decisions were sucked to the centre. Sadly, for all the talk of localism, and freedoms and flexibilities, British local government remains heavily centralised too. It’s nothing like East Germany thank goodness, but even though we are elected, councils remain agents of central government as much as we are the servants of the local people who elect us.
That must change. With our population both mushrooming and ageing, demand for our services is rising fast, but because of the financial crisis the money to pay for those services is very unlikely to rise accordingly.
So unless we find new ways of doing things, our currently excellent services will eventually go the way of the Trabant: underfunded, stuck in the past and quite frankly a bit of an embarrassment.
Local government as a whole is keenly aware of this and realistic too. It knows the country is weighed down with debt and that new political and financial models need to be found. The national body for local government, the Local Government Association, headed by my predecessor, Sir Merrick Cockell, is leading that search.
Some of its ideas are quite radical: a new England Department in Government, a new funding formula for councils and a municipal bonds market to fund infrastructure – to name just three. But for me the most important proposal is a really serious loosening of central government control that would give councils the freedom to come at problems in different ways.
By allowing different approaches and ideas to operate we will get the benefit of competition and trial and error. I can think of one area straightaway where more freedom would be very welcome: it is quite clear that national planning policies designed to stimulate regeneration and housing in locations that need it are not always appropriate in a place with the density and lack of space of Kensington and Chelsea.
But it’s nearly Christmas I know and reading about plans to remodel local government may compare slightly unfavourably with watching The Great Escape on telly and tucking into the Tanqueray’s. Nonetheless it’s important stuff about how our schools and care homes are to be funded in the future, so perhaps a resolution for the New Year…?
The LGA campaign is called Rewiring Local Government and you can read about it in detail here.