Monday, 17 November 2008

Baby P and local vs. national

Here is an important philosophical issue that keeps arising in politics, but never seems to get any nearer to being resolved: the tension between local decision-making and central government control.

I am among those who have argued in the past for a large dose of decentralisation from Whitehall and Westminster on those issues that can better be decided locally. This used to be long-standing Liberal Party policy. In more recent times, the Tories have also used the rhetoric of decentralisation (although in reality Mrs Thatcher was a great centraliser, the abolition of the GLC and the metropolitan authorities being only the most egregious example).

The Labour Party, by contrast, has tended (with some exceptions) towards a centralist view, both on the old left and among social democrats. I remember this being eloquently expressed by Neil Kinnock when he was fiercely opposing Welsh devolution in the 1970s.

The public (led by the gutter press) seems to be completely at sixes and sevens on this question. On the one hand, they seem to like the idea that "the man in Whitehall" does NOT know best. A good example of where I agree with them is the recent grotesque micro-management by the Department of Transport of local railway services all over England (though not Scotland and Wales), even down to how many carriages a particular train should have. Some of the railway franchises have been absurdly tightly specified.

On the other hand, when some local autonomy is granted, leading inevitably to different outcomes in different places, a huge clamour goes up against the "postcode lottery". That very phrase implies an expectation that everything ought to be identical everywhere -- the complete opposite of the local accountability that people say they want.

In theory, the trick is supposed to be to locate each sphere of decision-making at the most appropriate level for the function in question. This is what the EU calls "subsidiarity". The trouble is, when it comes down to it, how do you reach any consensus about what that level is?

Steve Richards ponders this question in relation to the dreadful events in Haringey:

In the abstract, the political fashion is for localism, especially in the Conservative Party. It is a common theme of the Tories: let a thousand flowers bloom! Central government should keep out of local matters even if things go wrong!

I have heard shadow cabinet members argue that, when in government, if things go wrong locally, they must declare that the crisis is not their responsibility. Yet look what happens when a single local story makes the national front pages. Cameron leapt in and demanded that the government acted. Within hours the government did act. The only issue was whether it should have done so earlier. No one was arguing that this was a matter for Haringey council and that it was up to the voters to kick out the ruling administration at the next local election.

As Steve Richards points out, giving the London Borough of Haringey the local autonomy to decide its own affairs has also meant that that same council was free to make calamitous mistakes. Most mistakes by local authorities do not get as much publicity as this one, but any reader of Private Eye's  "Rotten Boroughs" column knows that there is no shortage of examples of gross mismanagement, even -- or perhaps especially -- by big councils with their hugely overpaid, self-important chief executives.

And yet we do not, I think, want to abolish local government: on the contrary. One step forward might be to improve local accountability by electing local authorities by STV, so that there would not be such a tendency for some of them to be a permanent one-party state, as Haringey is for Labour.

Then again, can it seriously be claimed that the quality of decision-making at national government level is all that much better, when we consider all the monumental cocks-up that have been made in recent times?

1 comment:

Falco said...

It is a sad fact that there will be cockups either way. The benefit of localism is that it allows flexability, giving each area what it needs rather than following, perfectly or not, a central stratagy that is inappropriate.

One of the reasons that local governance is often so poor is that people recognise that there is little power available to councils and so do not care particularly who gets to play in the sand box. It would take some years of localism to change this but I believe that it would be worthwhile.

A "postcode lottery" is an inevitable result of doing things differently in different areas. It will take a long time to bring around the "everyone BE TERRIFIED" section of the press.