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Saturday, 23 October 2010

16. Foundation Councils

This idea comes from Colin Barrow, Leader of Westminster City Council and Edward Lister, Leader of Wandsworth Council.  The idea is outlined in a report called Magna Carta for Localism and is further developed by Barrow who makes his argument in a series of posts on the Conservative Home site
In essence the argument is that council's are restricted by:
  • An onerous, centrally-imposed performance framework
  • Insufficient operational freedom to design services that suit local circumstances
  • Lack of financial control in their areas
To overcome these problems a number of sympathetic, high performing and well managed councils should pilot foundation status.  These foundation councils would be given additional powers to help them  innovate in order to provide low cost quality services such as the power to:
  • set local fees and charges
  • generate income and save money through full freedom to trade and share services
  • exempt them from some regulatory burdens
  • introduce bye-laws and manage the public realm without reference to specific enabling legislation
  • present “offers” to central Government for more specific powers, freedoms and flexibilities in particular areas
Regulatory 'exclusion zones' could be established in certain areas to allow innovation around particular policy problems.  A proposed 'power to innovate' also reflects the idea that local government needs to be freed from central control if complex issues are to be tackled.  These ideas are underpinned by a belief in civic entrepreneurship and local responses to social and economic problems. 
Barrow sums it up like this:
Local authorities could do so much more if we weren’t strangled by increasing centralisation and onerous inspections which hamper our ability to innovate and deliver savings to local taxpayers (Quoted here)
The Foundation Councils idea draws on three strands of thought. 
  • First it develops a form of localism that rejects centralist managerialism and in particular the achievemnet of national policy goals through the use of central control and targets. 
  • Second, whilst rejecting central managerialism, it sustains a belief that local government needs to be judged on its ability to deliver services effectively and efficiently rather than on its role within the national polity.  It is therefore an idea that is more technocratic than democratic.
  • Third it rejects the idea that all local council councils should have equal status.  In many ways this resonates with the ideas of foundation hospitals (New Labour) and free schools (Conservative).   It suggests that councils need to 'earn' their responsibility in much the same way that children earn responsibility from parents.  Ultimately it is central government that decides which councils are deserving and which are not.  Foundation Councils therefore represent a limited form of localism.
As I often try to suggest, most ideas in politics are old ones reclyled (nothing wrong with that).
In this case I have found at least one interesting historical precedent (no doubt there are many others).  During the Holy Roman Empire a number of free and imperial cities were established.  They were run by Bishop Princes and (according to wikipedia):
They were not required to pay Imperial taxes or raise troops except during a Crusade, and had other additional rights and privileges (which varied greatly among them).

 Now, what about the idea of replacing council leaders with Bishop Princes....

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