One of the tenets at the heart of Localism, that collective functions should be performed at the lowest possible efficient level, is gaining increasing attention now that Localism is at least on Cameron's radar. The bigger question remains - setting the boundaries of those levels for a range of collective functions. And the answer for most functions is that the current administrative boundaries are inadequate to implement anything that comes close to Localism.
London's current boundaries were drawn in the early 1960s, when the metropolis had roughly the same population it has now. There were no computers and no photocopiers, however; the typewriter, carbon paper, manuscript forms and dockets and the spirit duplicator's purple smudge ruled the administrators' domain. Car ownership was low, shops were local and local communities had a high degree of self-identity. The Avengers and Coronation Street had just started on a TV network that had two channels. In monochrome. The reasons that supported the amalgamation of 91 'boroughs' into just 33 in London in 1961 don't stack up any more.
Yes, a London of the same population as today had 91 separately elected governing bodies; the modern Westminster borough was made up of three historic boroughs, Paddington, Westminster and St Marylebone. Kensington and Chelsea were separate, as were Hammersmith and Fulham, Deptford, Battersea and Finsbury. Click on the map below to expand. Wikilink.
I'm not advocating a blind reversion to the past, merely pointing out that administrative boundaries must be open to being periodically re-drawn to accommodate the democratic needs of the time.
But of course not all functions are efficiently performed at the same level. Welfare might be best administered by 90 autonomous welfare offices, each with a budget and discretion in how to apply it; indeed, London currently has around 93 jobcentres and social security offices, which indicates this sort of scale of devolution. Planning, on the other hand, may require an intra-London regional approach - eight areas based on the first alpha part of the postcode, say:
And yet other functions may be best performed at London-wide level, or some down at ward level. What we need is a London Government Commission, to look at the range of collective functions not reserved for national administration - and including perhaps arts and tourism, cemeteries, education, waste, welfare, police and fire, health services, licencing, planning, traffic and transport, social services - to determine the best level to run them at, and then to re-draw London's democratic boundaries to suit.
Two factors to bear in mind. We have a massive democratic deficit; our lowest tier of government in the UK has around 120,000 voters, whilst in the US and Italy it's 7,000, in Spain and Germany 5,000 and in France 1,500. All the indicators suggest we need more, and smaller, units of government rather than fewer and larger. Secondly, localism needs a radical reform of how we pay for collective services; I believe all taxes should be collected locally, with a precept based on local GDP going to central government to pay for defence, air traffic control and the like. The balance between property tax, income tax and taxes on consumption should be decided locally, as should levels of service and standards and quality. You've got to trust people.
Now is the time for Cameron's team to refine a series of Commission briefs to report within five years, with a view to a manifesto commitment to implementing a national localist re-organisation in his second term. He's got to take this seriously; if he isn't announcing a series of major commissions to tackle these issues, you can bet he isn't serious about Localism.