Wednesday, 24 September 2014

Local Government - Let a thousand flowers bloom!

If there are two words hated by the metropolitan political class they are Local Government. Add 'reform' and you have a subject that Prime Ministers, obsessed with legacy and international reputation, would rather spend a holiday in a leper hospital than tackle. Local Government is the antithesis of sexy. Yet if there is to be a meaningful devolution of power from Whitehall and Westminster we need a local democratic structure geared to receiving it. 

Firstly, there is no one single model of local government that fits all of England, its counties or regions. This will come as a shock to Whitehall, who imagine that 'one system fits all' is the way to go. Nick Drew has drawn attention to the manifest failure of the Cabinet system - under which councils are prevented by law from having more than ten councillors making the decisions. There may be places where this works - if so, they should keep it. If not, a multiplicity of alternatives are available. 

I've previously used the township of Vail in Colorado as an example of a small community that runs its own police, fire, library service, buses, street cleaning and refuse disposal, street repairs and lighting and so on. Education is a County level responsibility. But Vail isn't the only local government sub-division in Colorado; the State has 64 counties, two of which (Denver and Broomfield) are 'unitary' city and counties. The other 62 accommodate 269 incorporated municipalities - a variety of statutory towns, statutory cities, home rule municipalities and one territorial charter. All have slightly different rules, laws and ways of doing things; Denver has a party-free Mayor and Council (though they tend to be Democrats, they're elected as independent persons - not party hacks). There are a multiplicity of taxes, charges, subventions, virements and so on, but it all hangs together and there is a very high degree of autonomy and a highly localist distribution of democratic decision making. Denver City Council, which runs the police force, legalised personal possession of  cannabis after 53.5% of electors voted in favour. It's a bit like Norwich voting to do the same - and Norfolk County Council allowing them to do so. 

There will be throughout England a multiplicity of local government inheritances, boundaries and structures that are within living memory and which even the disastrous centralising Local Government Act 1974 failed to eradicate from local memory. Some may be based on the old Hundreds, some may have a renewed role for Watch Committees, some Counties may want to form Consortia - which could potentially exercise a national power to rival London; imagine a reborn Northumbria governing everything from Yorkshire to the Scots border, with a full set of counties, cities and towns within it all exercising democratic power to the extent they desire. 

Once Whitehall is taught the lesson that their job is to enable localist solutions, not to design them centrally, then we stand a good chance of success. But I fear we must have a mass cull of permanent secretaries and undersecretaries to get there.  


Graeme said...

If you buy me the kit to carry out the task, then I volunteer for the post of Chief Culler

Anonymous said...

The thrust of government policy since the Great war has been more and more central control.

That made sense when the economy had to be turned entirely over to a war footing, but in the sixty years since?

Not so much.

Anonymous said...

"But I fear we must have a mass cull of permanent secretaries and undersecretaries to get there."

That is a certainty. They have become our permanent government, the politicians are merely a bit of eyewash to distract those who will not see.

Anonymous said...

@ Graeme (0644)

Tell them to bring their own piece of hemp rope for a "very important task" to ensure "the very survival of the Nation"! Lamp standards have already been erected in a variety of suitable locations.

Bloke In Italy said...

Radders - dream on old boy; the great british public is so far from ready for that; possibly even further than Whitehall, and that is a LONG way!

However right you are, and for my money you are correct.

Demetrius said...

Rutland, as I recall personally, was an exceptionally well run County. In fact far superior to the huge sprawling West Riding County Council and many large County Boroughs. So Heath did away with the Rutland model and imposed the Big Borough/County Model.

Budgie said...

Much of what you say is correct, Raedwald.

Years ago an old man told me about the street cleaner of their small town. All the cleaner had was a hand cart, shovels, brushes. There was no management, consultants, box-ticking, form filling, cabinet government. Just one man - simple, cheap, got the job done. And the cleaner would have been able to have "ownership" of his work, and thus pride in the job.

But it is not just about transferring tasks from higher levels of government to lower. Some tasks should not be done by government at all. At most the government (whatever the level) should police the activity, rather than run it. We need to transfer activities out of government hands back to the citizen.

One of the main reasons that the state (ie UK) government meddles so much is because they have almost nothing left to do, the EU does it for them. As with localism, most EU tasks could be transferred back down one layer (to the state government level). The few requirements for international relations could be handled by treaties. Thus the EU supra-national government layer is a brake on localism.

We will need to leave the EU to achieve localism.

Anonymous said...

Dear Raedwald

The biggest problem with government is it's big.

It takes too many resources which belong to us and squanders them, and best incompetently, at worst with malicious intent.

Shrink government and the resources it consumes and the problem shrinks disproportionately: no-one in government seems to have heard of diminishing marginal returns.

The only difference between government and organised crime is that one is illegal.