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A widening impact of the referendum result

THE new head of the Local Government Association (LGA), the umbrella body for English local authorities, has launched an outspoken attack on Eric Pickles, the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government.

Councillor David Sparks's criticism does not come as a surprise.

The leader of Dudley Metropolitan Borough Council is a veteran of Labour politics in the West Midlands who was never likely to find common cause with true-blue Mr Pickles.

He is also the first Labour chairman of the LGA since 1994, reflecting a change in the balance of power since his party's gains in May's English council elections, so a broadside was always on the cards as he prepared to address the body's annual conference yesterday.

Quite apart from party politics, his comments reflect a wider resentment in England's town halls over their treatment at the hands of the Conservative Minister. Budgets have been slashed but above-inflation council tax rises have been made subject to unwinnable local referendums. Mr Pickles has also proved too hands-on for most councils.

Bans on fortnightly bin collections, for example, have exasperated council leaders. Cllr Sparks's message that councils need more, not less, power to run their authorities restates a longstanding complaint.

What is more surprising, however, is his focus on Scotland's independence referendum. Cllr Sparks was clear. The English question will fester, he warned, should Scotland reject independence but gain more powers as promised by the three main pro-Union parties. "The fuse will be lit before the year is out. Whether it is put out will depend on future governments. We have a ready-made solution: devolution down to local authorities. It will revive local government and local democracy, and be good for the country."

His concerns are based on the higher levels of public spending in Scotland and a feeling among English councils, struggling to provide day-to-day services, that they are getting a raw deal by comparison. Their answer is greater devolution of Whitehall resources, more freedom to raise money and to spend it as they see fit.

Scotland's councils will not recognise the picture he paints. They too have suffered swingeing spending cuts and, while referendums on council tax rises have not been imposed, the SNP's council tax freeze has made it just as difficult for local authorities in this country to raise revenue as they wish.

What cannot be disputed, though, is the growing determination south of the Border to use Scotland's independence referendum to demand greater devolution for England's cities and regions.

Labour, the Liberal Democrats and even the Tories now talk of devolution not just in terms of more powers for Scotland but as part of a UK-wide constitutional shake-up including, possibly, a new Senate to replace the House of Lords. Such ideas are dismissed by the Nationalists on the grounds there is no appetite in England, a view based mainly on the decisive rejection of regional assemblies a decade ago. The mood now seems to be changing. September's vote could pave the way for independence or a reformed United Kingdom.

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