Political Promise

Does “New Politics” Really Involve Localism?

In Jonny Roberts on July 22, 2010 at 4:49 pm

By Jonny Roberts

Local Government Minister Eric Pickles has been active in bringing politics to the people, especially in his chairmanship of the Conservatives during the election

The coalition claim to love localism but their reforms are destroying Town Halls, not Whitehall, and leave the case for regionalism wide open.

We were promised ‘new politics’ but the perennial cry of the disillusioned voter, “they all do the same when they get power”, is just as pertinent only ten weeks into the reign of this new government. Perhaps this is what coalition government is like, its certainly a first in my lifetime, indeed a first in most British people’s lifetimes. Being a fan of proportional representation I can hardly moan and it is, in fact, fairly evitable that when two very different parties combine to form a government; the policies of said parties will not cosily fit together to create an ideologically cohesive administration. So perhaps it is the gusto with which Nick Clegg and David Cameron’s ‘bro-mance’ seemed to flourish in the garden and on the doorstep of No.10 that formed, in my mind, a sense of consistency in the coalition’s plans. That consistency has taken ten weeks to expose itself as myth, the hypocrisy is horrifically obvious as the speech of one minister is instantly shown up as rhetoric, or as one government department makes policy with a point completely opposed in strategy to another next door. Only the good graces of a hot summer and the broad support of a right-wing press have saved this government of disarray from greater public wrath.

Mr. Cameron tells us, that power will be devolved from Whitehall to the people. Fine so we have a policy of localism, an end to the ‘centralism of New Labour’ they say. Yet the government’s radical and rapid-fire reform of state education and the NHS are designed to take power away from elected local authorities. This is not taking power from Whitehall; it’s the systematic destruction of local government. The aim of the Academies Bill is to, eventually, make every school (now primary and secondary) in England a state funded independent school. As with the current academies, teachers will be given much more autonomy to run their schools in the most effective way yet they will report only to the Secretary of State for Education. This is at once giving people the power but what remains of elected responsibility is merely one man in Whitehall. Power is not devolved from the state but from the district/city council. Whilst there was never much accountability in the NHS the move from Primary Care Trusts and Strategic Health Authorities misses the point. Local health services should be accountable to people who have been elected, again this will be just the Secretary of State. Despite this they protest the desperate need for elected police commissioners – heaven forbid the police should police themselves.

I should point out that I’m not totally against many of the coalition’s ideas or proposals (of course there are many that make me feel physically sick too) however it is the hypocrisy that is striking. More shocking, in a way, is that when we struggle to find cuts without hurting ‘frontline’ services there is a way that the Tories and Lib Dems supposed attachment to localism would never allow but their policies are opening up an obvious path to – regionalism. Both coalition parties are ideologically opposed to plans Labour put forward in 1997 for Regional Assemblies, arguing vociferously that they would destroy local representation. However, if health is run by the doctors, schools run by the teachers and local authorities left to making sure the bins get picked up and assigning the few council houses remaining then surely there is no problem in scrapping county councils altogether. Instead 8 Regional Assemblies (London already has one) could be formed:

North West
North East
West Midlands
East Midlands
Yorkshire & Humber
South East
South West

These assemblies could take on much of Whitehall’s power and provide strategic planning to deal with housing, economic development etc. as well as responsibility for police and fire services (both of which are crying out for more regionalised services to save money whilst maintaining quality of provision).

Beneath the Regional Assemblies would be unitary councils for every district council in the rural areas and city councils (preferably with elected mayors) in the cities. These authorities could work out implementation of areas such as transport, bin collection, youth services etc. as well more direct control of planning business development, town regeneration, police focus etc.

Merging services like the 39 English police forces into 8 would save millions as well as increase efficiency and quality by creating larger specialist teams. So often an incident in rural areas highlights the need for improved cross-force collaboration. As mentioned local authorities could work out local policing plans to the individual needs of their local areas working with their local police stations. The benefit of merging council services into regional services and downwards into district or city-wide councils would create £millions in savings too – all this without negatively impacting frontline services.

The coalition’s hypocritical policies are leading to the greatest hypocrisy of all – regionalisation (we’ve already seen Westminster and Hammersmith & Fulham Borough Councils announce the merger of their education departments – we’re only 6 weeks deep). Whoever leads Labour back into the post-recess parliament must embrace regionalism and a reformed, democratic and integrated (with Regional Assemblies) local governance structure and explain its virtue to the electorate. It could be truly leftwing way of improving society, services and the economy.

  1. Why the Coalition was the least of the many evils for the Liberal Democrats…

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