An idea for amending the Lib Dem pre-manifesto re. local government

The City Centred campaign (the Mayor of London, London Councils and the Core Cities Group of Birmingham, Bristol, Glasgow, Leeds, Liverpool, Manchester, Newcastle, Nottingham and Sheffield ) has called for the devolution of five property taxes to England’s cities – council tax, business rates, stamp duty, annual tax on enveloped dwellings and capital gains property development tax.

It’s an idea that Liberal Democrats such as Caroline Pidgeon on the Greater London Authority have backed as it fits well with Liberal Democrat beliefs in shifting more power downwards, away from Whitehall. Devolving taxes like these will also enhance local government’s ability to plan long term, rather than being subject to the annual whims of spending rounds (and it’s notable how much better Transport for London’s long-term planning has become since its finances moved away from that dependency, even though the New Labour method for doing this was horribly flawed in enough ways to fill a book).

I also like the devolution of property taxes specifically as at the local level there is often untapped potential to invest in improving communities in return for future streams of higher property taxes, something that the Lib Dems have encouraged via various devolution agreements during this Parliament. Good progress so far but an lot more can still be done.

Given the genesis of the group, they’ve obviously focused on cities in their proposals, but there’s no inherent reason to do so – and given the Liberal Democrat belief in general devolution, it strikes me that this makes for a good policy to apply to all councils, core cities or not.

It also is another way of tackling the problem with the Liberal Democrat pre-manifesto’s approach to local government, with its omission of a good simple headline policy as I talked about in We should double local government’s share of public spending:

So far the party’s policy development for the 2015 general election manifesto has been notable for financial commitments being made for everything but local government. That leaves less and less room for anything good to be done about local government.

It’s no coincidence that in the manifesto policy process, local government’s voice has been rather muted, so far. Kirsty Williams and the Welsh Liberal Democrats, by contrast, have worked the manifesto process skillfully and with great success to secure their policy priorities.

Being a member of the Federal Policy Committee, one notable difference I have seen between her approach and that of the local government lobby has been the nature of her demands – very specific, such as wanting tolls abolished on the Severn Bridge, rather than aspirational but vague, such as wanting a major rethinking of our approach to local government.

I suspect too that if the party committed to devolving these property taxes to local government, it would make for a more effective headline local government headline policy than my initial suggestion in that post and would usefully toughen up the ideas currently in the pre-manifesto document in this area which are worthy but limited in detail and ambition:

  • 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, starting with back to work support.
  • Introduce ‘Devolution on Demand’, enabling even greater devolution of powers from Westminster to councils or groups of councils
    working together (for example to a Cornish Assembly).
  • Establish a commission to explore the scope for greater devolution of financial responsibility to English local authorities, and new
    devolved bodies in England.

Time perhaps for a conference amendment… What do you think?


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