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9 May 2005

Haven’t we all got enough on our plates?

Election: the future - power to the people. Rob Blackhurst prefers centralised control freakery to t

By Rob Blackhurst

There can’t have been a parliamentary candidate in the land who did not deliver an encomium during this past month on the virtues of “local communities”. For politicians of all stripes, the local is now invoked as a post-political nirvana, miraculously free of conflict between interest groups and the cynicism that poisons national politics. The manifestos of all three main parties, including Labour, were hymns to the local. New Labour’s supposed control freaks seem desperate to relinquish their grip. Its leaders begin a third term in the belief that there is a voracious public appetite for devolved power.

Are they right? And is the “new localism”, as Labour rather drily calls it, really such a good idea? Like “stakeholding” before it, new localism spans a multitude of often contradictory policies, rang- ing from giving councils more power (John Prescott) to bypassing them with new, elected police, school and hospital boards (Alan Milburn). Hazel Blears (a Home Office minister in the past parliament) wants to give communities extra policing if they have a whip-round to pay half the costs themselves. Stephen Byers wants local referendums, so that voters can sack public sector managers if the bins aren’t emptied on time, or if the local leisure-centre changing rooms are breeding verrucas.

The Blairite shock troops see this “democracy and drains” as the first stage of a revolution. For Byers, the only way to restore trust in politics is to “move power from the state”. Milburn grandiosely claims that “we have reached the limits of the 20th-century statist approach to governance”.

Yet local politicians are less trusted than those at national level. According to the polling company MORI, only 32 per cent of people think they get value for money from their local council – a figure lower even than during the poll-tax era. Council tax attracts far more bile than any nationally levied taxes, despite accounting for less than 5 per cent of the taxes most people pay. And despite the fretting about general-election turnout, the figures for local elections have often dipped below 20 per cent.

The biggest scandals in governance over the past 20 years have been local – from the imprisonment of Doncaster city councillors for accepting bribes, through Dame Shirley Porter’s gerrymandering, and on to the postal-vote jobbery for Birmingham council seats last year. Moreover, the claim that local politicians are somehow more “in touch” with their electorates is belied by statistics, which make Westminster seem like the Notting Hill Carnival: councillors have an average age of 57 and, overwhelmingly, they are white, male and retired.

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The first “new localist” experiment – public elections to the boards of foundation hospitals – was hardly inspiring. Richard Lewis of the King’s Fund says the boards have some “pretty substantive powers”, including the “nuclear option of removing the non-executive directors”. But at Guy’s and St Thomas’s Hospital in London, where the first election was held in April last year, only 900 people voted, out of an eligible local population of more than half a million.

“As soon as you set up boards,” says Andrew Collinge from MORI, “the usual suspects put themselves forward who are already active in local politics.”

The same is true wherever there are local elections. School governors are now expected to decide on “strategic educational direction”. Yet schools find it difficult to enlist parents to become governors: most appointments are uncontested. One headteacher told me: “A lot of governors are out of their depth. They don’t understand the assessment system or the demands of the national curriculum . . . but they are expected to pass comment on teaching standards on the flimsiest knowledge.” As most parents become busier, those with strong but unrepresentative views put themselves forward. Another senior teacher complained that an evangelical Christian governor had demanded that her school “replace the annual school trip to France with a religious retreat”.

The most persistent myth of all is that locally run services are more efficient than those directed from the centre. Decentralisation can entail losing huge economies of scale. In the same way as Wal-Mart dictates cut-throat costs to its suppliers, so the National Health Service can use its monopoly purchasing power to reduce the bill for drugs. While ministers have been delivering breathless speeches on localism, Sir Peter Gershon’s efficiency review for the Treasury has criticised local government for operating 400 separate purchasing agencies. Gordon Brown has been demanding that councils co-operate in huge regional consortiums to pay for everything from stationery to street cleaning.

In Wales, where local authorities have had a say in health services, the result, concludes research from Nottingham University, is a “much worse” health service than in England, despite far higher spending. Since devolution in 1998, the numbers waiting more than six months for an outpatient appointment have risen from 5,956 to 62,691. Rather than making government more responsive, devolution has added an extra layer of bureaucracy. A former civil servant in the executive of the Welsh Assembly says that much of his time was spent making minor alterations to documents from Whitehall – “Welshifying” policy. “We would print out documents and make about three amendments in red ink,” he recalls. “We would then dutifully send them back to London, where they would languish in a filing cabinet.”

Britain – much of it suburban – has a stronger sense of national than of regional or local identity. Politicians are expected to deliver consistent national standards: think of the fuss over “postcode prescriptions”. When English students at Scottish universities found themselves paying higher tuition fees than the Scots studying alongside them, there were calls for government intervention. When Humberside Police Authority refused to sack its chief constable over the Ian Huntley case, David Blunkett, then home secretary, forced it to reverse the decision.

As Yvette Cooper, the Brownite minister, has pointed out, new localism is a threat to social democracy: “If affluent communities can buy themselves better policing or more frequent litter collections than poorer districts can afford, then inequalities will widen.” Localisation will encourage parochial attitudes and thus put tax transfers from rich to poor areas under increasing strain. This is well understood in the United States, where localism is firmly associated with the right.

When the NHS was introduced, replacing an inefficient patchwork of local council and voluntary hospitals, Aneurin Bevan said that in future, the sound of a bedpan dropped in Tredegar would reverberate around the Palace of Westminster. The NHS was one of the great successes of Attlee’s government and, in the same way, new Labour’s successes have been its centrally administered edicts: the minimum wage, the hours devoted to literacy and numeracy in schools, and Sure Start. Where it has had problems, this has been because of fragmentation, as with the rail industry.

It is easy to find idiotic cases of excessive central control. (During one winter flu crisis, health ministers sat in Whitehall demanding half-hourly updates on the numbers of emergency beds available in Crewe and Carlisle.) And no politician today would dare repeat the warning of Sidney and Beatrice Webb, that we “cannot afford to let a town have what police it wishes . . . what highways, markets or sanitation it elects, or what degree of physical health, of education and social order it happens to appreciate”. But before it embarks on a “power to the people” programme, the new government should reflect that the Webbs’ faith in centralisation may well be a truer representation of British political attitudes than the collected oeuvre of the new localists.

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