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The impact of a new government on British councils

The general election has promised a surprising amount of change this time around, with most of the parties keen to court voters on core issues of devolution and local government. But how will the new government look based on the policies of the major political parties?

Devolving powerDukes-NewGov

All the major parties have a commitment of one kind or another to devolving greater power.

The Conservative Party manifesto is focused on delivering power to large cities that choose to have elected mayors, including over "economic development, transport and social care" – a pilot scheme allowing Cambridgeshire, Greater Manchester and Cheshire East to keep 100% of business rate growth.

Labour share similar ideas for devolved power and business rates, but promise an English Devolution Act transferring £30bn to city and country regions. They also propose councils be given the right to curate High Streets by refusing planning permission to undesirable businesses.

Liberal Democrats, meanwhile, champion Devolution on Demand, a piecemeal approach enabling councils to dictate the rate at which they adopt devolved powers.

Practical changes

Conservatives are promising a minimum 10% stake in public sector land sales, and, along with Labour, they encourage voluntary services integration of the type introduced by Buckinghamshire and Surrey councils as a cost-saving exercise.

In terms of direct funding, Labour also promise a higher council tax on long-term unoccupied homes, while the Lib Dems suggest councils use crowdfunding and alternative finance models.

Accountability

The Conservatives and Labour both promise more direct democracy. While the Tories specifically promise residents the right to veto high council tax rises, Labour's English New Deal is more specific about the NHS. Their manifesto states that it will give the local public "a seat at the table" for any proposed changes. Labour also advocate the integration of online feedback services.

The Lib Dems, in contrast, are more focused on empowering communities to take on services themselves. Particular emphasis is placed on parish councils and tenant councils in social housing, and on communities being given the right to take over services like libraries rather than see them being cut.

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Lib Dems promise power to local councils

The Liberal Democrats have made bold promises to councils in their 2015 General Election manifesto, including "Devolution on Demand" across England. But what are the practical implications for local authorities?

What's on offerGeneral Election Rosettes

Promises such as limiting MPs power to interfere with local government officials, and "establishing a government process" to devolve greater financial responsibility are disconcertingly vague, but two policies at least directly address some timely concerns.

The first is a promise to end the need for a referendum when changing council tax rates. This could potentially help councils find sustainable solutions to growing council tax debt and the mounting cost of arrears.

The second is a proposal to "build on the success of City Deals and Growth Deals to devolve more power and resources to groups of Local Authorities and Local Enterprise Partnerships". In short, a selection of new initiatives aimed at empowering councils to boost local economies.

Flexible solutions

Overarching specific policies is the idea of "'Devolution on Demand". Recognising that not each region has the same appetite or capabilities for devolution, the manifesto implies that councils will be able to dictate their own pace for the introduction of new powers.

Quite how this would work in practice isn't made clear. We can certainly see difficulties in building a piecemeal budget to reflect the varying demands of councils across the country; but if such flexibility could be introduced in a manageable and practical way, it could allow for innovation, experimentation and collaboration among councils.

Double-edged sword

While we welcome the suggestion that central government will allow local councils greater freedom to deal with local issues, the significant lack of detail is cause for concern: and precedent says there may be hidden dangers.

The April 2013 decision to devolve council tax powers is the perfect example. Far from empowering councils, the responsibility for designing and implementing council tax systems came with big cuts to council tax benefits that have played a significant part in growing council tax arrears and in people turning to debt charities.

Perhaps the Liberal Democrats need to be more clear about whether they are devolving power to local authorities, or passing on the "responsibility" for unpopular cuts.

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