Select Committee on Transport, Local Government and the Regions Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 320-335)



  320. Should the appeal be to the courts or should there be an appeal process put into it?
  (Mr Travers) It would be surprising if there were not some form of appeal mechanism built into the arrangements and, indeed, one would hope that the Audit Commission and the Government will build such a mechanism in because if they do not there is the risk that it will go to court.

Christine Russell

  321. Professor Stoker, back to you. In the opening paragraph of your paper you say "the key question is: does the Bill do enough to provide the capacity for councils to make a difference in their communities". Perhaps you would like to tell us what you think the answer is.
  (Professor Stoker) I think the answer is as I really came to the argument in the paper I presented, that it is a good starting point but it is not enough. I do not know anyone in the local government or the academic community who would describe themselves as even moderately excited by this draft Bill. It is not going to set the world on fire in terms of a change in the way in which central/local relations are constructed or the way in which local government should work.


  322. Is it going to make a piece of paper smoulder?
  (Professor Stoker) I think that potentially the freedoms in relation to capital funding, if they come out in one formula rather than the other formula, that is more freedoms for local authorities to borrow based on their own judgment, that would be helpful. I think some of the other proposals in relation to greater discretion over charging, the Business Improvement District proposals, etc., are all helpful things but I do not think the Bill as it stands is going to be the Bill that we all look back at and say "that was the Bill that regenerated local democracy or local government".

Christine Russell

  323. Therefore, what you are saying too is that there will be no fundamental change in the actual relationship between central and local government?
  (Professor Stoker) I do not think the Bill marks that change, no.

Sir Paul Beresford

  324. Is it worth the effort? Should they just wave the flag and say "This is the intention" because that is all they are doing really?
  (Professor Stoker) I think if you are faced between a small step and no step at all then I suppose I am always tempted to say "Let us take the small step".

Christine Russell

  325. In both your opinions do you think the Bill perhaps relies far too much on secondary legislation and regulations?
  (Mr Travers) To be fair to this Bill and this Government, this is non unique to this Bill and this Government but there are undoubtedly sections or parts of this draft Bill which give the Government very wide powers either under the primary legislation or, for example—I highlighted in my memorandum, as I understand it and I am not a lawyer—that the whole of the operation of the new formula grant is contained in a single line which effectively says "The option of the grant is what is contained in the regulation". I know that has to go before Parliament but there is no doubt that this draft Bill would allow the Government to do very significantly different things within the terms of what is on the face of the Act when it becomes an Act, yes.

Sir Paul Beresford

  326. The reality is that the power, the muscle of this Bill, will go through in an hour and a half on an SI upstairs above the main chamber, no press, no-one seeing it, just local authorities catching the back draft?
  (Mr Travers) I think there are parts of the legislation which will be of that kind but, again, this is part of a wider issue for Parliament, it seems to me, because it is not unique, to be fair, to this Bill or this Parliament.
  (Professor Stoker) Can I simply add that I am sympathetic with Tony's line of argument. I think we should be a little bit willing to say that it is good that the draft Bill has been produced. It may well be that some of the lack of detail reflects the fact that it is a draft Bill.


  327. It would be reasonable, would it not, before Parliament approves it to have the draft regulations as well?
  (Professor Stoker) Absolutely.
  (Mr Travers) Yes.

Mr Cummings

  328. How urgent is it that the Bill becomes law?
  (Mr Travers) If I can take my theme from Gerry Stoker here. As this is a long way from emergency local government legislation to correct serious problems, I do not think it is that urgent but as a sign of Government intent—and as I say this effort on the Government's part to try to release a bit of power in its own terms—it would be better, certainly, that the legislation went through in the next parliamentary session rather than being delayed to the one after that.
  (Professor Stoker) I think I have indicated already how I feel about the Bill. I think it would be a small helpful step but it is difficult to say that it is a matter that would be in my top three pieces of legislation which I think we need in this Government.

  329. Would it be true to say that you are not terribly enthusiastic and excited about this?
  (Professor Stoker) I think you could say my opinion is close to lack of enthusiasm, yes.

  330. And Mr Travers?
  (Mr Travers) I used the word "war weariness" in my memorandum to describe the wider problem that any discussion of local government now tends to be war weary because over the last 15, 20, 25 years we have lived through staggering levels of local government reform affecting structure, finance, functions, often again and again and again. There is a risk that we all think nothing can ever be done, this is the best it can ever be.

  331. If it is your Bill, you are the Minister, you are preparing it, is there anything missing that you would like to see added or any additional amendments that you would like to see made?
  (Mr Travers) The trouble is if I answer this question in the way I am going to you will ask me exactly what. If it were my Bill it would be rather more radical than this one.


  332. Would that be ten more clauses on different topics or would it be a much more radical approach to the clauses that are already there?
  (Mr Travers) For myself, Chairman, I think it would be a more radical look at the whole position of local government's place within the constitutional arrangements of England within the UK. There is a very good case for such a review given that as a country it appears that we are about to embark on major regional reform which will have knock-on local government reform consequences. I think in a sense for a country such as the United Kingdom, or England within the UK and Wales doubtless separately, to consider the question of how national government, regional government and local government fit together and what their respective financing and service arrangements are we are probably at a time now when rather than iteratively doing little bits at a time there would be a good place for such a review.
  (Professor Stoker) I would add three things. One is I think that, as I have already said, I would like to see a much wider range of small scale but nevertheless worthwhile tax and charging opportunities available to local authorities. To break from a principle of simply having one main tax at your disposal would be really helpful in terms of giving local authorities a sense that they can control their own destiny at least to some degree. I would like to see on the face of the Bill a much more radical commitment given to those authorities that really have demonstrated over the last few years that they are effective performers, probably some of the most effective performers in the whole system of public administration that we have got, that they can be trusted to get on.

  333. Would you like to give us a couple of names?
  (Professor Stoker) Authorities that have done that?

  334. Yes.
  (Professor Stoker) I would have argued we could choose Middlesbrough and we could choose Kent. Those are two authorities which have the management in place and have demonstrated capacity over the years who should be allowed to get on with it, but I do not think I would restrict it to those two. The third thing, it seems to me, is in a way rather like the White Paper did, which is rather than kick most of the arguments about elections, politics and the way politics is constructed at local government level into touch, the Bill does not really deal with any of those issues at all. I do not think by any stretch of the imagination we have got local politics right yet. The reason why we keep on returning to oversight and regulation is because people do not trust local politics and until we can construct a local political system where people say it is legitimate, engaging, then we are perpetually going to be in a cycle where Central Government is asking themselves "what degree of freedom can we give to local authorities?" The reason why you do not have that conversation in other European countries is because people believe that local politics works in those countries.

Mr Cummings

  335. Knowing that Mr Travers has indicated that he believes the Bill to be a modest step that needs to be built upon and extended, and you agreed you are not very enthusiastic about the Bill, how would you like to see the provisions of the Bill built upon and extended? Something to capture our imagination.
  (Mr Travers) I think with the legislation as it now stands, to be honest, Mr Cummings, it would be difficult to make one or two small changes to this small Bill to turn it into the kind of bigger reform that I think personally I would prefer to see. What I would say is that given this legislation as it is I would be happy if I thought as we moved from the draft Bill to the final Bill and then into legislation that the provisions, as it were, for the prudential rules and arrangements under capital finance and for Business Improvement Districts and elsewhere in the legislation where there is a move in the right direction, were codified and made more visible and, as it were, brought forward into primary legislation and built into primary legislation rather more than they are at present. I think that is the way I would view it.

  Chairman: On that note, can I thank you both very much for your evidence.

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