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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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