28 February 1992 - 01 March 1992

Representative Government: Tensions between National Policies and Local Interests

Chair: The Rt Hon the Lord Jenkin of Roding PC

The immediate problem in tackling local government in an international forum, is the diversity, not of the issues which are to a great extent common, at least to the five countries represented at this Ditchley conference, but of the solutions. This diversity arises from different traditions, cultural approaches and constitutional arrangements. Thus the opening sessions and part of the time allotted to the working groups were largely taken up with descriptions of practice in the five countries present.

The conference accepted the broad proposition that the purpose of local government was the well-being of the local community. It had much greater difficulty with the concept of subsidiarity borrowed from the European Community, a term, though perhaps not the concept, entirely new to the North Americans, to whom however the idea of de-centralisation was familiar. It was here perhaps that the greatest attitudinal differences emerged, the continental Europeans tending to see the local community, or even the individual, as the basic unit, possessing core rights, and in a sense to regard the powers of higher levels of government as deriving from these by delegation. In Germany indeed the powers and responsibilities of the local authority, and its right to a set share of the province’s tax revenue, are laid down in the constitution. The Anglo- Saxons in contrast see local government as the “creature” of central government (or in the US or Canada, the state or provincial government). Having however agreed on a working definition of subsidiarity - “a general principle that requires responsibilities, powers and duties of local administration and provision of local services to be discharged at the lowest possible level of elected local government” - the conference concluded that it could not be regarded as a legal norm, subject to juridical interpretation, but only as a political guide-line. The word ‘possible’ was to be interpreted as embracing such factors as equity, efficiency, economy and voter participation. Clearly at one extreme defence could not be devolved; and even such eminently local services as refuse collection involved also refuse disposal which could in many instances only be efficiently handled at a higher level or through a grouping, of local authorities. A note of pessimism was interjected here, the doubt whether local school boards, for example, were capable of running schools.

Two key related issues emerged: to what extent, given that every tier of government would seek to lay the blame for failings on somebody else, was central (or state or provincial) government responsible for the mistakes and mal-administration of local authorities? Should local authorities have full powers within defined areas (and if so, in what areas?) not only for executing but for funding their responsibilities? Should they be allowed to go bankrupt? Secondly, how to reconcile the de-centralisation of responsibilities and powers with the desirable objective of equity within a given nation or state as between rich and poor subordinate units (or, within the European Community, between rich and poor nations)?

This led to the helpful distinction between re-distributive services aimed at the individual (e.g. education, social services, health care) and common or community services, roads, water, sewerage, fire, policing, refuse collection, etc. As regards the former, if equity was to be served, it was inevitable that a higher level of government would be involved in providing the money. Five approaches, it was suggested, were possible: the local authority could act as agent of central government; central government could lay down minimum (floor) standards, fund to that level and allow the local authority to raise money to pay for a higher standard if it wished; there could be an equalising grant to the local authority, on some clear and agreed scale of need to meet mandatory (ceiling) standards; funds could be provided for individuals to buy their own services, from public or private sources, (e.g. a ‘voucher’ system, though there might be other ways of doing it); or, finally, inequalities could simply be allowed to lie where they fell. The more paternalist the philosophy of the higher authority, the more it saw itself as responsible for funding services in the interest of equalisation, the more it was going to insist on standards and accountability to itself, and the greater would be the tension between it and the local authority accountable to its local electorate. One consequence could be loss of interest on the part of that electorate, discouraged by the futility of trying to influence local policies when the latter were dictated and funded centrally. However, that could not be the whole answer to the problem of voter apathy, or non-participation, since turn-out in the US was even lower than in Europe, despite the fact that central control and the re-distributive function of higher authority were weakest in the US (in some states, even, policy had come to rest at the fifth level outlined above - acquiescing in inequality) and the number of public offices open to direct election was greatest. Factors such as education, the voluntary nature of voter registration, the complication of the ballot paper (20 pages long in some US cities), the prominence of those seeking election, must also play a part

To the Americans, who admitted that the US probably fell short on the equity score, the degree of centralisation in the UK, the small amount of revenue raised locally in relation to central funding (15% on average) and the central government’s power to limit local taxation (capping) came as a not wholly agreeable surprise. In Germany, where as stated the relationships are defined in the constitution, there appeared to be less tension, though in such areas as housing, problems were beginning to emerge. In France, also, where however a large part of the management and funding of education (which in the UK accounts for some 60% of local expenditure) is borne nationally and local taxation accounts for more than a third of remaining local expenditure, the system resulting from the decentralising reform of a few years ago and described as “constructive chaos”, with 35,000 different authorities, seemed to produce fewer tensions. In the UK there were, not surprisingly, strong calls for local authorities to be given a free hand in providing services over, if necessary, a more restricted field, to raise funds for those purposes by taxation or borrowing, and to make their own mistakes, while central government should accept full responsibility for some at least of the re-distributive services, perhaps using local authorities as agents or through some method of making money follow the individual. Teachers’ pay, already set and largely funded indirectly nationally, would be a prime candidate for such treatment, though local authorities would wish to retain discretion over staffing levels. Such a shift however could well entail a shift in the proportions of tax raised centrally and locally - local tax levels in the US, it was noted, where local government enjoyed greater autonomy at the expense of equity, were much higher than in Europe and central funding lower.

One particular area of tension was noted, that of immigration, housing and homelessness. Here, for example, national policies on immigration could impose duties and costs on local authorities without the funds to back them. This was a particular problem in France and Germany, but occurred elsewhere also. Environmental measures were another area where national governments imposed (or accepted international) obligations, the burden of which fell on local authorities and communities. The phenomena of Not in my backyard (NIMBY) and Not over there either (NOTE) were mentioned, and the consequent need for some over-riding authority exercising its role through alternative methods of public participation such as the public enquiry.

Some of the problems of voter non-participation and poor services could be attributed to an absence of civic pride, which in turn might be due to lack of clarity and information about the system. Here an increasing tendency was noted in Europe for cities to go direct to counterparts in other countries or to the European Community in Brussels, for support - a tendency, it was generally felt, to be encouraged. In macro-economic terms, however, competition for investment between municipalities or communities was a zero-sum game and not necessarily to the advantage of the nation. The prominence of local government personalities was also a factor encouraging voter participation, though unless they and the local government machinery were seen to possess real power, it would be hard to mobilise the voters.

The conference reached no firm conclusions and doubted if any were possible: different solutions and balances would fit different traditions. The key issue was the balance between the dispersal of power and responsibility to the local government level and the need to achieve equity through re-distributive policies. That balance would shift according to political fashion. Probably there was no perfect system and it was better to travel than to arrive: at least the changing cycles, and the tensions, indicated life in the system.

This Note reflects the Director's personal impressions of the conference. No participant is in any way committed to its content or expression.

Chairman: The Rt Hon the Lord Jenkin of Roding PC
Life Peer (Conservative); Chairman, Friends Provident Life Office


Councillor Jeremy Beecham
Chairman, Newcastle upon Tyne City Council

Mr Thomas Caulcott
Management Consultant; Councillor, South Shropshire District Council

Mr John Graham
Undersecretary and Head, Local Government Group, Environment Department, The Scottish Office

Sir Terry Heiser GCB
Permanent Secretary, Department of the Environment

Mr Peter John
Secretary to the Local and Central Government Relations Research Committee, Joseph Rowntree Foundation

Councillor Sir Richard Knowles
Leader, Birmingham City Council

Sir Frank Layfield QC
Recorder of the Crown Court

Mr Anthony Mayer
Chief Executive, The Housing Corporation, London

Dr The Hon William Plowden
Senior Adviser, The Harkness Fellowship, London

Mrs Patricia Thomas
Commissioner for Local Administration in England

Dr Tony Travers
Research Director, The Greater London Group, London School of Economics

Councillor David Weeks
Leader, Westminster City Council

Mr Christian Wolmar
Assistant Home News Editor, The Independent

Mr Robert M Worcester
Chairman, Market and Opinion Research International (MORI)

Mr Robert Nixon
Agent General for Ontario in the UK

M Mario Polèse
Lecturer/Researcher, Department of Urban Studies, Institut National de la Recherche Scientifique, University of Quebec, Montreal

Professor Guy Carcassonne        
Professor of Constitutional Law

Professor Joachim Jens Hesse
Ford-Monnet Professor of European Institutions and Comparative Government and Director, Centre for European Studies, Nuffield College, Oxford

Herr Hans-Georg Lange
Councillor, City Council of Cologne; Director, League of Cities (Deutscher Städtetag).

Mr Donald Hirsch
Centre for Educational Research and Innovation, OECD

Professor John E Brandt
Professor of Public Affairs, Hubert H Humphrey Institute of Public Affairs, University of Minnesota

Professor Robert H Freilich
Senior Partner, Freilich Leitner Carlisle & Shortlidge, Kansas City, Missouri and Los Angeles

The Hon Harrison J Goldin
Goldin Associates LP, New York

Professor Otto J Hetzel
Professor of Law, Wayne State University Law School
Dr Paul T Hill
Senior Social Scientist, (directing research and analysis for New American Schools Development Corporation), RAND, Washington DC

Mr Peter C Hutchinson
President, Armajani Hutchinson & James Inc

The Hon Francis A Keating
General Counsel (chief law officer), US Department of Housing and Urban Development

Professor Michael E Libonati
Laura H Carnell Professor of Law, Temple University Law School, Philadelphia

Dean Frank J Macchiarola
Professor of Law and Dean of Law School, Benjamin N Cardozo School of Law, Yeshiva University

Mr Frank Mauro
Deputy Director, Nelson A Rockefeller Institute of Government, State University of New York

Professor Richard P Nathan
Distinguished Professor of Political Science and Public Policy, State University of New York

Professor Paul E Peterson
Henry Lee Shattuck Professor of Government, Harvard University

Mr David I Wells
Associate Director, Political Department, International Ladies’ Garment Workers’ Union, New York

The Hon Kathryn J Whitmire
Lecturer, Institute of Policy Analysis, Rice University, Houston