Super councils and localism: a load of hot air?

The news that three London councils are to merge their services has set off a few alarm bells. The three: Hammersmith & Fulham, Westminster and Kensington & Chelsea are not only three of the smaller London boroughs, they are also Tory-controlled. Hammersmith & Fulham went over to the Tories about 5 years ago. When they took power, the new leader said how much he wanted to see rich people move into the borough. Greenhalgh’s Hammersmith & Fulham soon became the model Tory borough in the same way that Chile provided the model for Thatcher’s economic policies. Greenhalgh’s aim was to demolish council homes and replace them with homes to buy.

Greenhalgh outlined his plans for “radical reforms” as he told Eric Pickles, Tory party chairman, and Grant Shapps, the shadow minister for housing, that he wanted to see social rents rise to market levels, and housing welfare payments to households “based on need, rather than rent paid”. This would mean placing individual adults in a room in a shared house, for example.

Now you know where the government’s housing policy comes from. It should come as no surprise that  Greenhalgh also heads up the Tory’s Council’s Innovation Unit.

As far as I know, the political merger of local authorities can only take place if an Act of Parliament is passed that permits a merger. In this case, the 3 councils have sidestepped this issue by merging only their services. This raises the question of accountability given that the serivces that have been merged such as refuse collection are carried out by private contractors.

Susanna Rustin of The Guardian writes,

For all the phoney language of compassion that drips from their statements, the crocodile tears about services cut, these councils are hellbent on cutting back on public sector provision, and in some of the areas that need it most. There are wards in north Westminster – a constituency held by Labour’s Karen Buck in May to the outrage of her big-spending Conservative challenger Joanne Cash— that are among the poorest in the country. There is some terrible housing and not enough primary schools, but still the financial crisis and impending cuts did not move the Conservative council to cancel its £23,000 banquet in a fancy hotel in March.Nor do the central London Tories seem inclined to follow the advice of communities secretary Eric Pickles to oblige highly paid council staff to take a pay cut.

Meanwhile on the Hammersmith & Fulham Conservative site, they claim that local MP Andy Slaughter is out of touch with his voters,

In opposing a cap on Housing Benefit the Labour MP for Hammersmith Andrew Slaughter is out of touch with his own supporters. An ICM poll in June asked: “Do you support or oppose imposing a maximum weekly limit of £400 on Housing Benefit.” Support was 68% with 23% opposed. Even among Labour voters there was strong support – by 57% to 35%.

I suspect that the findings have been cherry-picked or that the interview questions were phrased in such a way as to favour a particular outcome. Of course I have no real way of knowing this for sure but having worked in social and market research in a previous life, I can honestly say that some surveys are badly flawed.

But the proposal that these 3 councils merge is also badly flawed as Phil Cooper interviewed in the Fulham Chronicle points out,

“Merging three councils will inevitably mean fewer council officers administering reduced services over a much larger area. There will be much greater reliance on the voluntary services to fill gaps just at the time when council funding to the voluntary sector is also being slashed.”

Greenhalgh has already closed some community centres and homeless hostels. Sands  End Centre, just west of well-heeled Chelsea has been facing threat of closure since the Tories took power here in 2006.

I’ve heard many Tories talk about such things as localism but what do they actually mean when they use this word? How do they reconcile their idea of localism with the erosion of public services?

Finally this open letter to The Guardian from the three opposition leaders in the respective boroughs says,

The Conservatives are not ruling out using this merger as a mechanism for even more frontline service cuts, stealth taxes and loss of jobs, or as an excuse to undermine local democracy or sell off more community buildings. Nor have they explained how local residents will keep their ability to hold their council to account. They have not explained how any newly elected administration would be able to secede from any part of this if political control changes. They have also failed to explain why these particular local authorities should merge services.

Big society? Localism? It’s just a load of hot air.

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Filed under Big Society, Comprehensive Spending Review, ConDem Budget 2010, Conservative Party, Government & politics, Hammersmith & Fulham, London

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