Listening to Conservative spokespeople over the last few years, you would have been forgiven for thinking that the Tories believed in devolution of powers and responsibilities to local councils.
Conservative policy last February – and let’s be clear that is all of twelve months ago, so that’s time for the Tories to have at least 365 conflicting policies – was, according to their document “Control Shift”, quite clear:
“No action – except raising taxes, which requires specific parliamentary approval – will any longer be ‘beyond the powers’ of local government in England, unless [it] is prevented from taking that action by the common law, specific legislation or statutory guidance.”
Now – surprise surprise – Local Government Chronicle is reporting that the latest small-print says something rather different. Caroline Spelman, the Shadow Communities Secretary, is now using the phrase about Councils being able to do what is “legal and reasonable” – more or less the same as the current arrangements where local government is bound by Wednesbury principles of reasonableness and cannot act “ultra vires”. They quote a legal expert pointing out that:
“To achieve an unrestricted world for local government, it would be necessary to abolish the ultra vires doctrine, as has been done for companies. But it would appear that’s a step too far for any political party.”
And at the same time, Local Government Chronicle is saying – exclusively – that Shadow Chief Secretary Phillip Hammond has slapped down Conservative Council Leaders who were trying to put some flesh on the bones of the Tory devolution proposals.