Healthy local government, local pride and community (a questionable word for some) spirit is one thing – a hotch-potch of hazy notions masquerading as a serious ingredient in the life of the nation. Another ‘Localism’ is a typical Cameronian artifice thought up by one of those bright political advisors to try and convince the credulous that it is some sort of new higher principle and method when in reality it is more a pretence of democracy and dereliction of central government’s duty. Then there is ‘the big society’, another con which is entirely about savings, which our ex-prime minister tried to present as though he had discovered the holy grail of popular government. Now we have ‘the shared society’ of Mrs May, the mistress of obfuscating promises assuring us she is not really Cruella, as austerity rumbles on. Regrettably UKIP, insofar as we have anything to say about this sort of stuff, seems to go along with it.
The ‘big society’ can be dismissed quickly: if you want volunteers to run your library with the best scratch service they can, then vote Tory and sack the professional librarians, because it is really all about cuts. ‘The shared society’ is Cruella patting the poor on the head. The arguments against both have been implicitly addressed in previous articles. This article is concerned more with ‘localism’, since it brings in some policy areas not yet touched upon.
The word ‘localism’ does not sound particularly offensive – so perhaps it’s hardly worth bothering to define? Have we ever heard the Government even try convincingly? What could possibly be wrong with local people taking more interest and responsibility for their own community? Do we not have ample precedent already in local groups and local government, reflecting local needs, conditions, aspirations? Well yes we do, and that is part of the objection. We certainly do have a rich tradition of local government, which may not be beyond improvement, but by and large it works well: it delivers a tolerable if unexciting local democracy, and Mr Cameron’s pet project does not seem to have improved low local election turnouts yet. If that was an aim it is safe to say it has failed. Similarly with executive mayors, which are supposed to enthuse the populace and be able to get things done better. So far most people have wisely shown their scepticism to such exotic creatures. If we really want to serve local democracy we should revert to the committee system, where elected councillors are better able than the ruling cabal in its ‘cabinet’ to speak for the whole electorate.
Governments talk up local democracy but are quite happy to override it when it suits them. ‘Consultations’ get launched with loaded questions to smooth the path of developers; Section 106 bribes get passed on a banana-republic scale; planning inspectors are not allowed even a hint of a challenge to government policy; development corporations with a few fig-leaf representatives from local councils are allowed to send the bulldozers in no matter what the local people want.
The policy is however really aimed at the major city or regional level. We should strongly oppose this because local government structures are quite capable of handling major schemes; it does not require an elected mayor and another level of management to make things happen. Naturally those who would benefit personally will always be keen. We should also oppose it because it is first cousin to regional government, beloved of EUphiles and all liberals everywhere, which is a way of chipping away the nation-state by reducing the role and importance of ‘authoritarian’ central government. Governments quite like this because it purports to display a softer power-sharing face, and can enthuse about sharing democracy whilst still enjoying the real power in London. It also lets them off the hooks of moral and financial responsibility: “Nothing to do with us, it’s up to local government to interpret the guidelines (never ‘rules’ – that would be far too straightforward) – so you can’t blame us, and by the way, you’re paying for it and won’t get any more from us.”
The main moral criticism here is that central government is shirking a most vital responsibility – to promote improvement, standardisation and conformity across the country by spreading best practice, co-ordinating and auditing. Failure to do this, particularly in vital services, results in inefficiency, unnecessary costs and the post-code lottery which is a recurring theme in our long list of national failings. There must also be a duty to take decisions on behalf of the whole country and be prepared to override those made locally where necessary. We cannot have the best solution for the storage of nuclear waste thwarted just because a county council is against it, particularly when the really local people actually want it. Again we ask, what exactly is ‘localism’?
Two organisations illustrate this nonsense. Our excellent Armed Forces are run centrally. They have some minor local association but they answer to centralised command, if necessary to the very top. The police on the other hand consist of local forces. (There is an efficiency case to be made for them to be more centralised, though there is no room to expand on that here). To superimpose on them however the Police & Crime Commissioner organisation, each with their own expensive bureaucracy, ‘setting local priorities’ (as if those should vary significantly from one area to another), and entailing yet another low turn-out election, just so the Tories can crow about their masquerade, is typical of the bubble of unreality which seems to envelop our poor benighted country everywhere we look.
UKIP has an opportunity to make a point here: we should enter the P&CC elections but only on the promise that we will abolish this absurd post if we are elected. UKIP should denounce these –isms, all woolly thinking and deliberately misleading distractions at every opportunity. We need to focus on the realities and shout long and hard when the emperor is obviously quite naked.