Boris Johnson is facing a rising tide of disgruntlement among his own party’s grassroots councillors, amid anger about a decade of cuts and the imposition of planning reforms, which will downgrade town halls’ control over local development.
A new survey, seen by The Independent, found that more than half of Conservative councillors think their local authority has been treated unfairly financially by central government, and two-thirds think Whitehall undervalues the role of local government.
Just 15 per cent – little over one in seven – of Tory councillors back Mr Johnson’s planning reforms, compared to more than three-fifths (61 per cent) who oppose them.
The findings came in a survey by think tank Unlock Democracy of almost 500 councillors from across England, which found an overwhelming 88 per cent believed the power balance was skewed too much in favour of central government, to the detriment of municipalities, counties, districts and boroughs.
One Tory councillor, speaking on condition of anonymity, said that central government “fundamentally dislikes and distrusts local government” and “considers it a necessary evil at best”.
Another complained about “interference and nanny-stating by the central government when they know nothing about local issues”.
And another said that London uses a “one-size fits all approach” and ignores the advice of local councillors.
Deep cuts in central funding for local councils under Conservative-led governments since 2010, coupled with restraints on increases in locally raised council tax, had led to a 17 per cent fall in cash available for services by 2019, even before the additional financial pressures of the Covid-19 pandemic.
A total of 83 per cent of councillors questioned said their authority had been treated unfairly financially, with fewer than 10 per cent of Tory councillors saying that their financial settlements had been “very fair”.
Proposals for a radical revision of the planning system unveiled by the prime minster last year lit the blue touch-paper for an explosion of opposition from town halls across the country. Those proposals have been blamed for contributing to the Tories’ humiliating defeat in the “Blue Wall” seat of Chesham and Amersham, seized by the Liberal Democrats in a June by-election on a remarkable 30 per cent swing.
Mr Johnson has blasted the English planning system as “a relic” which ensures there are “nowhere near enough homes in the right places”.
His radical plans would sweep away core elements of the system, replacing them with a US-style model designed to accelerate and simplify the delivery of housing and infrastructure projects. But critics claim they risk sidelining local councils and clearing the way for poor-quality slum housing.
Unlock Democracy director Tom Brake told The Independent: “It doesn’t matter which party local councillors represent, their disgruntlement with central government is clear.
“Their efforts to level up their communities are hampered by a lack of powers and insufficient funding.
“This is why Unlock Democracy is campaigning for a new settlement between national and local government, which would stop the centralisation on steroids experienced in the last four decades and give local councils real powers and real independence.”
A spokesperson for the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government said: “We’re levelling up all areas of the country by empowering our regions through devolving money, resources and control away from Westminster. Later this year we will publish a Levelling Up white paper, setting out how we will help further improve livelihoods.
“We’ve also increased English councils’ core spending power from £49 billion to £51.3 billion between 2020 and 2022.
“Our much-needed planning reforms will make sure there is more engagement and local democracy, and will simplify and modernise the system – making it quicker and more efficient.”
- Unlock Democracy questioned 442 councillors on 2 July 2021.