Thursday, 26 March 2009

Localism - can the right ideas be turned into successful policies?

When the Conservative party announced the contents of a green paper on local government reform in England, I welcomed the initiative rather ruefully, given that regional government is soundly entrenched in the rest of the United Kingdom courtesy of devolved institutions.

Nurturing the grassroots of democracy, decentralising power, localising decision making – all intrinsically noble goals which aim to facilitate the type of participative society Cameron Conservatives are keen to encourage. To further these objectives, the Tories intend to remove a layer of regional assemblies in England. The party’s goals won’t be as readily achievable where emasculated local councils subsist under an expensive stratum of regional government, which, in order to justify its existence, must retain functions local government could perform.

However, in April’s ‘Prospect’ Demos Director Richard Reeves emphasises (subs required for full article) that the sound theories of localist policy are not always matched by practicalities. And as if to underline his point, the Audit Commission has just accused seven councils in England of ‘negligence’ after they paid £33 million into Icelandic banks just as their collapse was known to be imminent. Should local authorities be trusted with the power of ‘general competence’ which the Conservatives propose and if they should, will a political culture accustomed to ascribing blame to central government change to reflect the shift in responsibility?

Reeves observes that whilst Conservatives may aspire to devolve power locally, the centralised system of tax will almost certainly not be altered correspondingly. Cameron’s party has already committed to keep council tax low. Indeed the green paper allows for referenda to challenge significant increases. If more power is to be devolved to local government, then more money from the central tax take will need to accompany it. ‘Representation without taxation’ is Reeves’ formulation, and he is a little sceptical as to whether a new government would wish immediately to dispense the power it has just acquired across localities, together with the funding required to exercise it.

If power is given to councils (and from there on to the ‘little platoons’), there will necessarily be greater diversity of provision and decision across the country; matters which are pejoratively described as depending on ‘postcode lotteries’ will become more common, rather than less. A pluralist society will be encouraged, but also a society where regional differences become more pronounced.

And although decision making might be distributed by Westminster and Whitehall to local authorities, it does not necessarily follow that the public perception of responsibility will immediately flow in the same direction.

“In time, citizens and the media will recognise that power has shifted. But it might be a wait, given the nation’s long history of looking to Westminster. “We’ll probably be out of power by the time the penny drops,” sighs one Tory.”

In common with Cameron’s social emphasis the localist agenda will require his government to be resolute. Enthusiasts urge sweeping changes during the Conservatives’ first year in government, lest sinews on this issue should progressively weaken. Both Thatcher and Blair espoused localism before their terms as Prime Minister, but their respective governments both pursued centralising policies in actuality. There is an argument that Cameron must pass the required laws before he has time to change his mind.

There are issues of confidence at stake here, as well as issues of national self-confidence. Do Cameron and his cadres trust local people to make decisions? Is there enough self-confidence in the coherence of British values to allow pluralism to develop in the assurance that the nation’s conception of itself will not suffer? I believe that the key to the proposals is that they have an organic impetus, seeking to enable democracy to flourish from the bottom up. The Conservatives intend to empower localities, rather than take a constitutional hatchet to institutions of government. The feeling of participation, of closeness to power, which this will engender, can only benefit national politics in the long term.

If Labour’s heavy hand were to oversee this project (because the party has invoked localism from time to time), one might expect atomised, dissociated regions and a dissipated whole. The challenge facing the Conservative party is to enable confident, politically empowered communities, eager to participate in a revitalised United Kingdom. In common with other areas in which the party faces challenges, its leader is drawing on the right ideas, whether he can turn them into executable government policy will determine his success as a Prime Minister.

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