Tony Blair said a lot of things at the party conference on Tuesday. He spoke for a long time and said a lot of things, and everyone will have their own particular favourite part, even if its only a favourite part to criticise.
The section which caught my attention most was this. First of all he said:
And give local communities the powers they need to hold people to account.
This was at the end of the section about crime and disorder, but it set the scene nicely for the next paragraph which was:
Today is not the era of the big state, but a strategic one: empowering, enabling, putting decision making in the hands of people, not government. One day, when I am asked by someone whose neighbourhood is plagued with antisocial behaviour or whose local school is failing or hospital is poor, “What are you going to do about it?” I want to be able to reply: “We have given you the resources. We have given you the powers. Now tell me what you are going to do about it.”
Now I agree with that 100% and I hope it signals a change of emphasis away from central control.
When I was in local government I saw more and more signs of the decision-making moving upwards. A very good example is that of local authority housing, where councils are co-erced, cajoled and bullied into trying to transfer council housing to housing associations, but there are many others. We never had a sense that even local authorities were to be trusted to manage their own resources, let alone the public themselves.
So my reply to this part of the speech would be:
fine. Thanks. Lets see some autonomy devolved down to local authorities at whatever level first, as a first step towards having us all decide what we want to do locally. Lets reverse the trend towards centralism and lose the reputation of control-freakery which we have. Do it in one ‘big bang’ or do it by degrees, but don’t let it just be a piece of party conference rhetoric. And if you want a good place to start, how about the fourth option, as agreed by conference two years running?
And I don’t want that to come across as cynical. I am choosing to believe it until proved wrong.
A bit of clarification: many councillors would be happy to see it stop there, using the argument that the way the local population will express their opinions on what to do locally will be to elect councillors who share their views. They would happily see the council having powers for everything. I may be a bit strange in that, even while a councillor, I would have been happy to see decision-making devolved further than that.
If that sounds like a turkey voting for Christmas, then fair enough, but I can still recall some of the resistance to the idea of local strategic partnerships which sounded more like a desire to preserve a power base than to actually improve either the process or the outcomes of local decision-making. So you can just imagine how the suggestion that local area committees should have some element of discretionary control of budgets was reacted to!
Its what we call subsidiarity.