Monday, 7 August 2017

Hows about we try some of that there local democracy? It used to work quite well.

A while ago I wrote about the move to ban local councils from charging for Park Runs following the decision of a town council to do just that:
And, of course, you all think it absolutely right that politicians in London ban Councils from deciding on things like what they can and cannot charge people or organisations for doing. Don't get me wrong here, I don't particularly think Councils should charge for park runs (although please note that crown green bowlers, cricketers and football players are charged to use facilities in public parks) but I do think that if we are to go to the trouble of electing local councillors to make decisions we should actually let them make those decisions. And, yes, that might include charging for a park run. If you don't like the decision you get the chance to vote out the people who made that decision. This is how the representative democracy lark works.
This process - whereby decisions made by local authorities are over-turned because national politicians see some votes to grab or are badgered by national media and other national politicians into stopping the local council from doing what its democratically elected councillors have decided they will do.

This isn't just a British problem (although we are, among larger countries, one of the very worst offenders) - here's Joel Kotkin in New Geography about the USA:
This follows a historical trend over the past century. Ever since the Great Depression, and even before, governmental power has been shifting inexorably from the local governments to regional, state and, of course, federal jurisdictions. In 1910, the federal level accounted for 30.8 percent of all government spending, with state governments comprising 7.7 percent and the local level more than 61 percent. More than 100 years later, not only had the federal share exploded to nearly 60 percent, but, far less recognized, the state share had nearly doubled, while that of local governments has fallen to barely 25 percent, a nearly 60 percent drop. Much of what is done at the local level today is at the behest, and often with funding derived from, the statehouse or Washington.
Anyone taking a reasonably long view of English local government will recognise this trend with local councils increasingly mere agents of central government enacting programmes and projects deriving from the legislative and fiscal decisions of national government. The drive to standardisation through inspection regimes and the tendency to go on about 'postcode lotteries' provides the justification for this change. Very little that Bradford Council does is not directed, regulated and funded by central government meaning that, when that central government changes its spending priorities or reduces spending the thick end of the impact is felt by the council.

I believe this is, for all of standardisation's superficial appeal, bad government. Not only does is assume that circumstances are the same everywhere but it kills administrative innovation by constraining the freedom of action for local councils. It may be true that we'd all like everybody everywhere to receive the same incredibly high quality of service but the reality of modern government is that quite the reverse is true - the lack of flexibility and independence at the local level results in sclerotic, unresponsive public services that become inward-looking and producer-oriented. Faced with radical alternative approaches the producer-dominated local government (and agencies with related vested interests) appeal to national government and national bureaucracy to prevent any threat to the current system.

This problem has got mixed up with the arguments about regional devolution (an excellent idea being very badly delivered because of national government's control of investment finance and insistence on city-regions rather than existing political geography). The thrust of localism is that government is better when politicians focus on making what they see out their front door better rather than on designing grand schemes and systems to run everything, everywhere according to rules laid down by clever folk in a London office.

And let's remember that the check on this system - we call it democracy where I come from - is that folk get a regular chance to replace the politicians if they mess up. I happen to think this a rather better approach to government than the current system where those local councillors can simply blame central government for everything that has gone wrong.



Bucko said...

The unfortunate thing is that whoever you vote in, locally or nationally, they all insist on more rules and regulations. They never say we have enough, or even that some should be repealed

Anonymous said...

One man's localism is another man's postcode lottery - discuss.