Reviews

by John Ellison

This is a mammoth treatise. Running to more than five hundred pages, stuffed tight with collation and analysis of research and rich in information tables, at its heart is a threefold focus. The first is on how, in the UK, national government policies over the last half-century have mutated local government for the worse. The second is on how local government could be transformed again into an instrument more directed to the interests of, and more accountable to, the electorate. The third is on how the taxation arrangements supporting local government expenditure could be revolutionised to facilitate a much greater degree of economic equality across the whole community, as well as to fund local government. All this from a declared Marxist perspective.

 

The State and Local Government has some of the characteristics of a doctoral thesis. Overall it is far from unreadable, though I confess to having had a struggle with the short section which stirs in the political theory of Antonio Gramsci. I overcame this difficulty by starting from the end of this section and eating it backwards in bite-sized chunks.

Local government in Britain - its structural arrangements, its relationship to central government, its funding, and its management - has been hugely transformed from what it was fifty, forty and even thirty years ago. Peter Latham does not stop with telling the story of this transformation: he tells us why it has occurred. He identifies the wellsprings of this change, which cannot be separated from Britain's functioning as a capitalist economy, itself in a state of flux and inseparable from the world's changing circumstances, which encompass the continuing current world financial crisis.

Early on he identifies key changes, including the abolition of the Greater London Council and of the six Metropolitan Borough Councils; the increasing central government control of local government expenditure to over 80 per cent• through the Revenue Support Grant and the Uniform Business Rate• the detachment of schools from local authority budgets; the extension of compulsory competitive tendering for council services; the establishment of the 'New Local Council Network' (funded by private contractors) for the explicit purpose of enlarging the private sector role in service provision; the erosion of internal democracy within local government by the shift of decision-making power in councils into an inner cabinet of councillors headed by a 'leader', or into councils run by a US style directly elected mayor. So, over the years, the more democratically accountable local government machinery of the past, which some of us once knew, has been brought low by a protracted series of assaults.

It may not surprise, against this backcloth - as Latham reveals - that between 1998 and 2008 the average allowance for council leaders in England more than doubled to almost £18,000, while cabinet member councillors were given a large enhancement in allowance over those left outside the cabinet door. The potential for secrecy and, indeed, for serious corruption in these devil-take-the-hindmost magic circles has escalated in step, just as the evidence accumulates that private sector outsourcing of public services is more expensive and less effective than public sector provision, and is prone to proffering the begging-bowl whenever financial apocalypse threatens.

Two chapters are devoted to the system of local taxation, levied currently through council tax and business rates. Latham proceeds to consider thoroughly the case for a replacement of council tax and business rates by a taxation system based on annual land values for landowners, and home owners, but not for tenants (now applied by over 700 cities world-wide), and which is capable, he calculates, of producing up to £100 billion a year. The more land owned, the more tax would be due. Though the argument for a land value annual levy is presented convincingly, the analysis of the history of land tax theories is not reader friendly. And when detailed quotations are supplied (and there are a lot of them), sometimes the references given in the text are starkly minimalist.

The canvas is large. A lengthy chapter surveys with approval decentralisation of local government initiatives afoot in China, Kerala, Venezuela and Porto Alegre, a Brazilian city. In these places the defiance of the neo-liberal consensus in economic policy is encouraging to socialists, but at the same time comparisons with the socio-economic context of local government in the UK must be strained and of limited relevance to the core analysis of this book.

Peter Latham also reminds us of Marxist thinking about the nature of the capitalist state, about the distinction between appearance and reality and so forth, and he outlines Gramsci's theory (evolved whilst he was a prisoner of Mussolini's fascist regime) of how 'a war of position' and the development of a broad united movement can realistically challenge the control of an advanced capitalist economy. These theoretical aspects can be found in his introductory chapters, to which the practically-minded reader may wish to make a visit, after burgling the open safe in the main building of this book, to extract the gold bars of vital knowledge deposited therein.
In final chapters the central issues previously addressed give way to an examination of the present Government's 'back to the nineteen thirties' policies, how they have been answered by public opposition, and how they may be further addressed in the coming times.

Readers should not be put off by the awkwardness, here and there of elucidation and of language: this is a treasure trove in print.