Pitch imperfect, by Mike Thatcher

12 Nov 09
MIKE THATCHER | It’s goodbye to Big Government and hello to Big Society – certainly if the Tories win next year’s general election

It’s goodbye to Big Government and hello to Big Society – certainly if the Tories win next year’s general election.
Conservative leader David Cameron explained all in this week’s Hugo Young lecture when he outlined plans for a ‘post-bureaucratic age’.  Social entrepreneurs, community activists and other individuals will all be encouraged, and funded, to help the disadvantaged.

Young people will update their Facebook pages not only if they change partners but also when they take part in a different ‘social action’.

It might look like a winning philosophy to the bright young things in Tory head office, but it sends shivers down the spines of public servants who will have to make this work in the months and years ahead.

Clearly, something has to be done. Public debt is reaching horrendous levels and ratings agencies are warning that the country could lose its triple A status.

We have to do more for less – and increased decentralisation must be part of the answer. But Cameron’s analysis offered little to guarantee that charities and right-minded individuals will be able to provide the level of service that the public demands.

Nudging people to do the right thing doesn’t mean that they will oblige. And if the state steps back, who will pick up the pieces when something goes wrong?

Moreover, Cameron’s philosophy does not make the best use of local government. It’s true that he has offered a general power of competence and the promise of new mayors to act as a focus for civic pride and responsibility.

But the Tory leader sees town halls as a last resort, to be used only when ‘neighbourhood empowerment’ is impractical. His emphasis is on communities and individuals, full of rosy images of citizens helping each other out. Rather like former Tory PM John Major’s description of long shadows on cricket grounds and warm beer, it evokes great days that perhaps never were.

And, of course, there’s no mention of the spending squeeze – with local government facing 20% cuts if we are to believe a report this week from KPMG and Localis (see 'Big government comes under dual attack' on this website).

This prospect is understandably not doing much for morale. Council chief executives, for one, are voting with their feet. Last week the chief execs of Leeds, Stockport and Cardiff councils all announced their early retirements, and others will surely follow.

Local government could be a huge force for good in the difficult period to come. Prime ministers and potential prime ministers would do well to remember this.

Mike Thatcher is the editor of Public Finance

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