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The Government's local invitation

by Michael Meadowcroft

It is inevitable that the vast majority of media and political attention is currently focussed on the spending review. It is probably also the case that this level of attention will continue for some time, not least because the opposition believes - wrongly- that it can get away with negative attacks based on some narrow effects of difficult decisions . To widen the attention on government action, Liberal Democrats need to shout about liberal policies of the coalition, not least in the key field of civil liberties, electoral reform, the pupil premium and, it appears, Trident.

There is another area of coalition government initiative which has immense potential for Liberal Democrats and which can work in our favour at next May's local elections: the "general authority" to local councils, the increased power to raise loans and the right to retain housing revenue locally, together make up the first major step to reverse the sixty year long destruction of municipal government and to build up local democracy.

In this new dispensation Liberal Democrats need to stress the primacy of elected multi-purpose local authorities and to avoid the chimera of a localism based too narrowly on voluntary organisation. This, in a telling phrase in the debate at the recent Liverpool party conference, from John Shipley, the leader of the Newcastle City Council, would be a dangerous "atomisation." We need elected bodies commensurate with the scale required to deliver a broad body of services, so that we can get away from indirect bodies for police, fire, transport, etc and to look towards local or even regional responsibility for health services.

Unless there are multi-purpose bodies it is impossible to gauge the spending priorities and to measure the needed spending on one service against another, in the light of the maximum possible income. Why should Yorkshire & Humberside, with a higher population than Wales and around the same population as Scotland not have similar responsibility for its own affairs? In Enoch Powell's phrase, based on his experience as Health Minister: "The power to tax and the power to spend must be in the same hands."

The legitimacy of elected bodies extends downwards to local town and parish councils. I use the example of Leeds but it will be pretty much the same in every city. We have thirty-one parishes but only one within the old county borough boundary. We could well campaign for more parish councils where local residents demonstrate a wish to set them up. Why does Morley have a town council but Pudsey does not? Why does Horsforth and not Rothwell?

We need to look at the reasons for the decline in community identity and values within our cities. Some reasons, such as the economic pressures on residents in poorer areas are more difficult to deal with, others, such as planning policies can be dealt with but take time to show results. But other reasons, such as the lack of places to meet and to provide a community focus can be dealt with relatively cheaply and quickly.

One key reason that is rarely addressed is the lack of professionals resident in poorer areas. The image of success for any young person with imagination and ambition is to get out. Virtually everyone who is, in theory, looked up to and who can be a role model lives in the suburbs and commutes to their work. This includes teachers, doctors, lawyers, social workers, councillors and many church ministers. Nowadays most police neighbourhood officers in "difficult" areas live miles away. All this encourages the drift of potential leaders away from the areas in which they are most needed. It would be possible to encourage key people to live and work in the same area by offering pay "bonuses" and making larger houses available.

The professional/voluntary partnership is vitally important in any community development programme. It is not necessarily expensive. The presence of an "enabling" professional presence requires relatively few paid officers and an occasional office base, and will multiply itself many times over in increased community activity and awareness and reduced anti-social behaviour. With basic levels of professional underpinning, local community associations may well be able to take over the running of community facilities - health centres, advice bureaux, day centres and, perhaps small libraries threatened with closure.

Our cities have a very broad spectrum of cultural groups from symphony orchestras to history groups, via sports bodies, architectural conservation, amateur dramatics, book groups, film societies and dance theatres. All these can be encouraged and supported by the provision of basic facilities and occasional professional support. They are vital components of strong and secure communities. In addition there are non-issue based groups, such as ethnic minorities and tenants' associations, which also play an important role.

We need to build on good practice and to implement the lessons of existing initiatives. We have time to develop local manifestos highlighting community development which does not require huge expenditure but which can involve local individuals and underpin campaigning which is politically and electorally popular..The coalition is making all this possible. We need to say so.

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