Tony Devenish is the London Assembly member for London West Central.
Conservative voters are giving us a message loud and clear; it is not clear we are listening. I remain a huge supporter of the Prime Minister who, we should remember, has only been in office 12 months. Whilst it is above my pay grade to offer the Government broader advice, I believe there are both lessons to be learnt and pitfalls to avoid from local government.
Local Government has outperformed all parts of the public sector since 2010 but must continue to take the lead on delivering value for money. The usual suspects will claim that Councils are “down to the bone” and point to Councils which have effectively declared bankruptcy. Rather than grasp the nettle and push on with further reforms, the annual Local Government Conference in July seemed content to wait for a new Government, which many senior councillors and local government officers believe is due between October 2024 and January 2025.
I’m sympathetic to the sheer exhaustion many in local government feel after 13 years of budget “cuts”, especially given I, myself, have been an elected councillor for 17 years. But the fact remains that Councils still have eye-watering budgets and far too much is spent on staffing costs, even when much of the core services themselves are delivered by leaner private sector partners from Adults and Children services to Waste Collection. The resistance to more fundamental change from heavily unionised workforces is the elephant in the room. George Osborne, the former Chancellor, may not have been perfect, but he had the guts to force Councils to freeze Council Tax year-on-year and to reduce expenditure by up to 60 pence in the pound. The roof did not fall in. In fact, many Councils reported improved customer satisfaction.
2024 will be a crucial year for our country. We can slide into a big continental-style state under Sir Keir Starmer (with a likely imposition of Proportional Representation to try and cement semi-permanent Labour-Lib Dem-SNP rule) or Rishi’s Government can reiterate (again and again) that we Conservatives are on people’s side, insisting that Councils demonstrate they we can live within our existing budgets for another 12 months. Yes, there will be howls of protest from those who cannot wait for a Labour Government, but the hard-pressed public deserves a 12-month reprieve from more and more tax and spending during what no-one denies is a cost of living crisis, despite the media growing bored with this story and moving on.
Councils cannot increase Council Tax or parking charges or any other of the multitude of fees and charges if the Government simply says “No”. With much of local government still working from home and a booming job market (which, oddly, no one gives the Government any credit for – one million new jobs under this Conservative Government) there is far, far more that Councils can do to re-engineer service delivery without the need for expensive redundancies. Simply banning permanent recruitment for 12 months in the vast majority of areas (with an exception only granted to allow temporary staffing when absolutely essential for vulnerable services that may “fall over”, such as Adult and Children’s Services) will make a big difference to the British public.
We should not forget our Party’s only recent electoral success was in the Uxbridge by-election. Two points are of overwhelming importance: first, where it is clear to people just how much damage Labour does in power we can hold on or even – as with Croydon, Enfield and Harrow at London’s 2022 local elections – make gains. Secondly, the public are smart and will not be fooled by lies and greenwashing from Mayor of London, Sadiq Khan, or anyone else. Hence Labour was punished for Sadiq Khan’s multiple stealth taxes, from his massive increases in his share of Council Tax (nearly 60 per cent plus in seven years and counting) to the faux environmentalism of his ULEZ Expansion. The recent bankruptcy of Labour-controlled Birmingham and the mess Labour has made of running Wales should help us Conservatives to focus the public’s minds on how horrendous the alternative of Keir Starmer really is.
One of the most bizarre annual processes at the Greater London Authority is the Budget-round every autumn to spring. Umpteen detailed meetings with budgets from Policing to Transport, Housing to the Environment. The officers behave (as do Khan’s Deputy Mayors) as if the roof will fall in, unless their £21 billion budget is increased. Every year not only is it increased – generously – but hundreds of millions of pounds turn up from the “evil Tory Government “ (Khan’s pantomime words) between February and March. So much money in fact, that the Mayor was able to introduce free school meals in London for everyone including millionaires’ children last year. During 2024 let’s just allow the public to keep a little bit more of “our money” without Sir Humphrey in the Town Hall (or Khan) knowing best.
One of the biggest myths propagated by public sector unions is that it’s cheaper to employ a council officer – complete with a gold-plated final salary pension and a hugely generous set of terms and conditions – than a fixed-term interim on a higher annual salary. Having sat on a Council Pensions Committee for many years I’m delighted that Council officers enjoy a 30-year retirement, I just think our country can afford a few less such future pensioners and still provide first rate public services.
Some would say we Conservatives have little to lose by focusing even more on fiscal discipline in our 14th year in power. I strongly suspect that the people of Mid-Bedfordshire and Tamworth may actually agree. I know our excellent PM does.