When it comes to the annual conference of the Local Government Association, all eyes are on Eric Pickles, the danger to shipping and UK Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government who is well past his salad days. Pickles is due to speak to the LGA conference later today, and he will surely have something interesting to say. To give him due credit, Mr Pickles – a name which makes him sound like an amiable domestic cat – is not your average Tory ministerial drone.
Pickles aside, what has struck me already about the LGA conference is the little reported speech made yesterday by Graham Allen, a Labour MP and constitutional specialist. Allen is calling for a change in the tax regime so radical that it would bring Britain into line with the civilised world.
Allen has issued a rallying cry for English devolution as a response to the ever newsworthy move toward Scottish independence. However, the rationale for Allen’s use of this clever if slightly cynical rhetorical device is to highlight the wrong that is a local government sector entirely subservient to Whitehall. The purpose is to support the LGA plan for a major shakeup in Whitehall.
Local authorities derive only a small part of their funding from the Council Tax collected directly from residents; the bulk is from central government grants controlled by the likes of Eric Pickles. The UK is a unitary state in which the Westminster parliament reserves all real power for itself, and very often uses local government as a whipping boy for its own failings.
In most civilised countries the citizens’ principal point of contact with the state is via city and borough councils. In Denmark, where I lived prior to returning to the UK, it was the conservative-controlled Frederiksberg Kommune to which I paid my taxes. Frederiksberg would then pass on nationally agreed percentages of tax revenues to the regional and national governments, while providing taxpayers with a detailed breakdown of spending at all levels of the state. The UK is opaque in comparison with such other-European fiscal openness.
One of the benefits of a more open and locally managed tax regime is that one can more easily compare and contrast taxes and service provision. For example, my income tax in conservative Frederiksberg was lower than that levied in socialist Copenhagen, but had I lived a few hundred metres to the east I could have benefited from Copenhagen’s greater service provision in various areas. In Denmark you pays your money and takes your choice, and, given the high level of public information and debate, no-one can plead ignorance.
Small and seemingly insignificant though it is, Denmark is a grown-up democracy, whereas the grander and more self-important Britain is a patrician-liberal state. There is a huge difference between Denmark and Britain, despite their very similar cultural makeup.
Will the LGA succeed in its proposal to restructure UK government and taxation? Certainly not in a political climate in which crises of all kinds are met with centralised managerialist solutions. Whitehall has the power, and the ruling class is reluctant to devolve power beyond the UK’s constituent national governments in Scotland and Wales. There is no English parliament, nor is there likely to be while the UK continues to exist as a political entity. I look forward to its demise.