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Grant Shapps MP: Free from the strait jacket of central government, local councils must now look to the people they serve

Grant Shapps By Grant Shapps, Housing Minister at the Department for Communities and Local Government

Readers of this may have heard of the Stockholm Syndrome – it describes how hostages held by a gang of Swedish bank robbers in 1973 began to sympathise with their captors. It is now an accepted psychological term – and it describes how hostages can be captured not just physically but also mentally. They lose track of which decisions are in their true interests. Some of the hostages in Stockholm even resisted rescue.

I think some councils are in danger of exhibiting similar behaviour – of still looking to central government to tell them what to do when we want to set them free.

In education, health, planning, housing and policing we are decentralising power like never before - to let people take control.  We are intent on creating the Big Society.

For too long central government has had local government in a strait jacket – tightly restricting the movement of officers and councillors, making them bean counters, and form fillers, inspecting this, and auditing that.  It tied them up in red tape and stopped them from listening to their residents.

That led some to make ludicrous decisions to ban things that didn’t need banning and to do things that didn’t need doing.  We need to change attitudes and introduce common sense. Councils and even our citizens have come to expect the state to be looking over their shoulder - more Big Brother than Big Society.

That’s why we’re throwing open the books in Whitehall and we think Town Halls should do the same so that from January all of their expenditure over £500 will be open to public scrutiny.

Residents know what salaries are being paid and what expenses are being claimed. And they should do - after all it’s their money. And quite frankly I still think some chief exec salaries are too high. So I was really pleased to see that the LGA Chief Executive, John Ransford, took a pay cut recently.

Some people seem to think it’s a tougher job to run a local council than to run the country. Why else would they be paid more than the PM?  But in future top salaries must be voted on by the full council and they can decide if that should be in public – I bet readers can guess what I think councils should do.

Ministers will also continue to want to help shine a light when we think things are going wrong. Yes we’ll highlight and sometimes criticise, but it will be the bright light of transparency, rather than Whitehall diktat, that changes things. That transparency will lead to accountability – because we know that public scrutiny is far better at making Councils take the right decisions than Whitehall targets.

But are councils ready for this Town Hall revolution? Some are. But there are others who seem to be afraid to seize the freedom to act.  Their case of ‘Stockholm Syndrome’ is clearly well advanced.

Some are tied to Whitehall’s ‘nanny state apron strings’ terrified of being cut loose.  But councils are cut loose – they have been set free. The people – residents - rather than Whitehall, are now, officially, calling the shots. Instead of looking to me, councils need now to look to the people they serve.


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