Fraser Nelson

The coming war between the coalition and the councils

The coming war between the coalition and the councils
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Cameron vs the councils may well be the most vicious political battle of 2011 – and one I preview in my News of the World column (£) today. It comes in four stages. First was last week, when the increasingly impressive Eric Pickles said he wanted a 27 percent cut in funding over four years. Grant Shapps weighed in behind him – saying that even 8.9 percent in a year (the maximum cut facing councils) was do-able without any cuts in frontline services. The councils, predictably, said it is not possible. And the threats have started.

The strategy amounts to nothing less than a human shield strategy. "If you make us cut," they say, "then we'll turn off street lights, or sack lollipop men" (both real examples). Of course, the risk falls upon school kids crossing the road unaided, or single women making their way home at night. When locals are angry, the councils will say: blame the government and their wicked cuts.

Will it work? There is something in the saying that all politics is local. People get angrier that their local lollipop man has been whacked than they would over, say, defence cuts. It affects them directly. Also Thatcher's attempts to target local government waste led to the poll tax – she wanted a small charge to be paid by all, and it turned into a big charge. The uproar was, for her, the beginning of the end. Ken Baker was defied over school reform by local authorities. They are, undeniably, a force to be reckoned with.

But Pickles and Shapps have something Thatcher never did: documented proof of local authority waste. Thanks to the pioneering work of the Taxpayers' Alliance, with their FoI requests and Town Hall Rich List (pdf), we know how much waste there is. We know that the councils have £billions worth of fat to cut, before they take an axe to the lollipop man. The MPs' expenses showed us the scale of public anger towards the abuse of public funds.

Next month, all councils will be forced to detail any expense over £500. A strong local press will, hopefully, scrutinise this. And when the councils say they have no choice but to turn off street lamps, locals will see that it ain't so. This assumes, of course, local newspapers with enough reporters. Local papers are in bad health in Britain, and many councils even put out their own taxpayer-funded alternatives.

The cuts should come in the financial year starting 5 April. Pickles and Shapps are not using Thatcher's unduly combative style. Shapps praises councils as being integral to a local community, and says how he wants to give them more powers. With charm and ammo, I think it's a battle the government will win - even when the councils play dirty. Next year will tell.