Wednesday, 31 March 2010

Big Society or Big Smokescreen?

Well, this is no Big Bang Localism. But then who thought it would be? This key Conservative policy could have been so much better, but as it stands, it really is vacuous, pointless and without much substance.

Firstly, the policy correctly identifies the neighbourhood as the fundamental building block of local administration. We all know the boundaries of our neighbourhood, and if left alone, the inhabitants of Lewisham could produce an accurate plan of the sixty or so neighbourhoods in the borough within weeks.

And, er, that's about as far as it goes. No new democratic structures, and above all, no devolution of the borough budget and no power. Cameron's policy has the brave aspiration "that every adult in the country becomes an active member of an active neighbourhood group", but ignores the fact that people will ONLY get involved if real money and real power is there. So what has he shied away from? What should he have had the balls for?

Neighbourhoods will be able to bid to take over the running of community amenities, such as parks and libraries that are under threat.
Why just those 'under threat'? And many of these facilities will be 'under threat' because the council has reduced or removed their budgets; will the Neighbourhood get the budget from the council? Will the Neighbourhood directly employ TUPE-transferred staff with accumulated redundancy and pension entitlements? Will the Neighbourhood inherit crumbling buildings and infrastructure? Or will the Council Tax for the Neighbourhood be reduced if they take on such an asset?

Neighbourhoods will be given a right of first refusal to buy local state-owned community assets that are for sale or facing closure. This will cover assets owned by central government and quangos, not just town halls.
To do what with them? If this is a right to acquire land for commercial development, it's a good start - but it won't be. Currently the public sector sells land assets to fund capital development projects, with the receipt from the sale at market value. Does the right imply that neighbourhood groups would be able to acquire land assets at below OMV? Is there an obligation to keep them in their old use, or can they be profitably redeveloped?

Neighbourhoods will also have a right of first refusal to take over and run vital commercially-owned community assets when they shut down – for example, those post offices, pubs and shops whose continued survival is of genuine importance to the local community.
Again, this is nonsense. Businesses close because they are unprofitable. Distorting the market by eliminating a factor cost - labour - is unsustainable. Volunteers may give their time for free to serve in the shop for a short while, but then rotas will get harder to fill, the facility will increase closures until you have a village pub open only from 6pm to 10pm on Wednesdays or whatever. This isn't the answer. Try giving neighbourhoods power to determine business rates and whether smoking is allowed in the pub or not and you might have a chance.

We will give neighbourhoods detailed street-by-street crime data, so that they can hold the police to account at local beat meetings.
Big deal. Without operational control and elected police bosses at borough level, all these meetings will become are acrimonious justification-fests.

Neighbourhoods will be able to start their own school, giving them greater control over their children’s education.
But why not take over the local primary school? Again, would budgets be devolved, or local Council Tax reduced by the costs of local running of a school?

Neighbourhoods will be given the power to engage in genuine local planning through collaborative democracy – designing a local plan from the “bottom up”.
But no local veto on development - no local development control, no licensing powers, no power at all except the spurious 'power' to attend a meeting. We won't be able to block the horrid HAs from converting our closed pubs to warrens for Nigerian overstayers or block a license for a pole dancing club in the old butchers.

We will use the Sustainable Communities Act to ensure that neighbourhoods have access to line-by-line information about what is being spent by each central government agency in their area, and the power to influence how that money is spent.
Again, weasel words. Not the power to determine local spending, just the power to have a view, which we already have.

Allow neighbourhoods to create Local Housing Trusts to enable villages and towns to develop the homes that local people want, with strong community backing.
Yes, this could be good - but why not do the obvious thing and allow local HATs to take over council housing within the neighbourhood?

Greater access to funding for neighbourhood groups, for example the neighbourhood element of local tariffs raised from development.
Yes, but with the true devolution of planning powers, neighbourhoods could get the whole s.106 contribution from development - why not? And not just some token change.

This really isn't enough to get everyone involved. The local council is untouched, and retains all its money and powers, and Whitehall retains all its direct powers over local councils. Cameron's Neighbourhood groups will be dominated by narrow interest groups - a local Evangelical church, for example - because they're not required to have any democratic legitimacy. And without any real power or any real financial resources, they will die an early death.

This is timid, pusillanimous stuff with little substance.


Umbongo said...

Tell me Raedwald, given your evident disappointment, what ever made you think that the Conservatives would be prepared to relinquish one iota of the power gathered in by Labour over the last 13 years? When has Dave ever demonstrated in the outfit that he presently runs a genuine commitment to localism by, say, allowing local Conservative parties the definitive say in which candidate they select?

I know it's the small change of blogdom to say that there's little difference between Labour and Conservative policies but, in reality, there isn't. For "natural" conservatives this is a source of much unhappiness. The idea of seeing Brown and Labour (re)elected is not attractive. However, the by-product of a Conservative humiliation would be the end of Dave and, possibly (though not certainly), the return of a genuine opposition determined to oppose rather than simply spout the same statist mantras with a nicer accent.

hatfield girl said...

'Neighbourhoods will be able to start their own school.'

In some neighbourhoods - south of the Euston Road for example - there simply is NO Camden secondary school (and a schools' worth of pupils forced to migrate (at the bottom of every entry list) north of the Euston Road and into Westminster. There are non-local and long-standing reasons for this, but this Conservative policy will work for setting up Bloomsbury High, plans for which are very advanced.

And more primaries south of the Euston Road are needed too. Not every area has a local primary school and/or enough school places, at all levels. Taking over the local primary is irrelevant when there is an absolute shortage of school places in the right place. Bloomsbury Junior and Infants is needed too.

A start your own school policy is really important and very welcome.

BrianSJ said...

Good list, Raedwald.

English Pensioner said...

No politician has ever genuinely ceded power back to the people from whom it was taken without a revolution.

Weekend Yachtsman said...

You're surprised?

Did you actually think the Tories were any different from all the rest?