To the barricades

24 Nov 05
PETER WILBY | I think I have begun to grasp what New Labour means by localism.

I think I have begun to grasp what New Labour means by localism.

The idea is to move all decisions so far away from anyone affected by them - to private firms, quangos, regional authorities and Whitehall itself - that people will eventually be forced to take back power for themselves, street by street.

We shall then have rule by the sans-culottes in the style of revolutionary Paris, as well as the ‘grassroots democracy’ that modern politicians are always wittering on about. Tony Blair is a secret Robespierre.

Since I was always taught that irony is a dangerous weapon in newsprint, I had better explain that that is a joke. However, the memo that was leaked to the Daily Telegraph the other day isn’t a joke — at least, I don’t think so. Written by David Miliband, the minister for communities and local government, it proposes reforms in the 34 English shire counties. (Since English cricket has 36 county teams, there ought surely to be more, but I guess we’ve lost some along the way.)

Instead of the two-tier county and district councils, Miliband argues, we should consider unitary authorities. Miliband generously concedes that this could be achieved by getting rid of either existing tier. But the point of the exercise is to create ‘stronger strategic leadership’, to achieve cost efficiencies and to reduce the numbers of bureaucrats and councillors. It is not hard therefore to imagine which tier is most likely to be the loser. Indeed, 43 police forces are already to be reduced to about 15.

Miliband quotes this, and other reforms, such as the plans to cut the number of NHS primary care trusts from 300 to 144 and strategic health authorities from 28 to ten, as ‘a significant opportunity for government to think cohesively’.

Think cohesively? Well, chance would be a fine thing. I see few signs that New Labour ever thinks beyond the next newspaper headline, or that its right hand ever knows what its left is doing. Since this is a government split not only between Blair and Gordon Brown, but also between its genuine desire for social justice and its wish to placate big business and middle-class voters — that is hardly surprising. But I wasn’t entirely joking when I said I had an idea what ministers were up to.

Let me try to tease some sense out of it all. The trouble with most local authorities is that they are too big to be responsive but too small to look important. That is why people always grumble about them, but rarely vote in local elections.

Public bodies that use taxpayers’ money to provide services for tens of thousands of people must operate according to fairly strict rules. They cannot vary those rules because I happen to drop by the town hall demanding an earlier rubbish collection or a healthier school dinner for my child. Someone else might drop by next day demanding later collections or more servings of burgers and chips. And what about those who are too busy or too shy to drop in?

The truth is that, to most people, a public body is as remote and as unfriendly whether it is five miles down the road or 500 miles away in Whitehall. There must always be a rulebook — it is indispensable for a body that provides services, free at the point of use, for large numbers — and, to most of us, it will inevitably seem rigid and impenetrable. Allow too much discretion, and you leave too much leeway for favouritism and corruption.

The solution is to confine conventional public bodies, such as councils and health authorities, to strategic decisions, mainly about the allocation of resources. Since these should take the large view, the bigger the better and, in some areas of public life, the only appropriate place for a decision will be Whitehall itself.

This was essentially the view that was taken of health services when the NHS was founded and it is the view of education services towards which governments have steadily moved for the past 30 years.

Meanwhile, decisions about day-to-day services and use of resources move to the most local level that can be reasonably imagined: the school, the hospital, the GP’s surgery, even the street, with some form of elected voice for parents, patients or homeowners.

That is why those of you who work in local government find the new localism so baffling. It’s localism, but it doesn’t include you. It’s government, but not as we know it. This is an essentially Leninist view of how things should work, which is why you don’t hear ministers articulate it quite like that. Besides, they muddy the waters with talk of choice, diversity and private sector providers.

But it is the only way to make sense of New Labour’s approach to local government, education and health. Otherwise, it’s just another joke.

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