News and Views‎ > ‎

Whatever Happened to Sir Humphrey ?

posted 21 Apr 2012, 00:02 by Peter Webb
This is a view from STAG supporter Gerald Gilbert of Elmbridge

From observations of how successful (or not) Secretaries of State, Cabinet Ministers  and Portfolio Holders in both the national and local government are, it seems that there is a new generation of Sir Humphreys, thwarting the common sense and intentions of their so-called masters.

The Government came into office, full of good intentions, with promises of greater local democracy and less bureaucracy. Yet every month, if not week, some new initiative is started, only to be shown shortly afterwards to be flawed and ill-thought through, with unintended consequences. How can this be? Politicians set out to be leaders in the community, yet many fail to produce good outcomes.

What can be seen in local council meetings is typical; that studies and schemes are produced by the paid staff of officers, and usually accepted without serious challenge by the elected representatives. The acid test should be “How does this comply with the original intentions laid down at the outset by the political leaders?” But this does not often seem to be asked.

There has been discussion recently on the merits or otherwise of having elected mayors with full authority for getting results, as in London or France. One comment has been that such persons would command a salary commensurate with their responsibilities. Well, we have those already in the form of Permanent Secretaries of government departments, the original Sir Humphreys, and Chief Executives in local government. We could not afford both, so which should go and which should stay ?

The Government is finding out to its cost that the way to the Opposition benches, like hell, is paved with good intentions. Is it too late for it to learn the lessons?  One piece of legislation promised for this year is a complete reform of local government funding, referred to as the Retention of Business Rates, and the omens are not auspicious.

The historical background on this is interesting. Business rates were set and collected by local authorities; a form of local taxation. Under the Local Government Finance Act 1988 a single national rate was decreed. In the foreword to the Government Accounts 2005-6 the original intention of redistributing the NNDR in proportion to their resident population, was restated. However, it adds that this would be done in accordance with” the methodology set out under section 78A of the Act under regulations made under section 141”. Hence a subsequent and significant change, not referred to Parliament, was made at some time later to include a further adjustment to reflect the calculated Deprivation Factor for each area. The effect of that change on the county of Surrey can be shown in the figures for 2010-11 below, and the pattern remains much the same.

The total NNDR collection for England was £19.1 billion, and with a population of 51.4 milion, this represented £371.6 per head. With a population of 1,099 million, the NNDR redistribution would be £408.4 million. The actual refund was £111.1 million to the County Council and £44.4 million to the boroughs, totalling some 38% of the County’s contribution.

So what are the Government, or rather the Department of Communities and Local Government (of Conservatory Tax repute), to do to amend the system? Secretary of State Eric Pickles set the scene in his preface to the document, stating his, and presumably the Government’s, intention to repatriate business rates allowing councils to keep a greater proportion of the taxes raised locally; thus encouraging them to boost growth and support their local economy, which in turn will be a crucial part of meeting the national challenge of restoring the country to a strong and sustainable growth regime.

Reading the text of the full document, however, makes one wonder whether he had written his preface first, in effect as a brief to his department, or afterwards, without having actually read what he was signing up to.

My reading of the proposals shows that they will actually reinforce the status quo, with a system of fixed levies and tariffs.  Any benefits to local authorities will only arise from increased local business activities, not the other way round. And so any marginal contribution to restoring the national economy will take place so slowly as to be inconsequential and irrelevant. Do not other Cabinet Ministers or any Members of Parliament understand what is going to be put to Parliament in the next few months? No wonder the poll ratings are so anti-government.

I would much prefer to be sitting down watching a current version of “Yes Minister” to the many offerings of A & E wards, labour wards, and forensic laboratories. Some well-addressed satire is a sad omission from television programmes these days. I hope I am not alone in that respect, and our elected representatives could benefit too.

Gerald Gilbert                                                                                                                                17th April 2012

20 Newlyn, 69 Oatlands Avenue, Weybridge, KT13 9TL;Tel: 01932 225187