Soon after EF Schumacher wrote his famous book, ‘Small is Beautiful’, he commented that if he’d lived in a world of small organisations he’d have written a book called ‘Big is Beautiful’.
His point was that a good society needs a balance of big and small. The same is true of local government. There are no inherent virtues in local institutions, which can be petty, parochial and incompetent. Localism only becomes necessary in a society where too much has been centralised.
That, unfortunately, is the condition of Britain today. A generation of centralisation has left policy and strategy largely determined by national politicians and civil servants at Whitehall, leaving councils with little to do beyond implement central decisions. Not surprisingly, fewer voters can be bothered to vote for disempowered councils, and fewer of the most able want to stand for local office.
But the irony of local government isn’t simply that it doesn’t govern much: it’s that it also isn’t very local. Our lowest tier of local government is still very distant from most people, with an average size of about 115,000 people, compared to more like 10,000 in most western countries.
One consequence is that Britain has one elected representative for every 3,500 citizens, whereas France has one for every 100 people. There, almost everyone knows someone involved in government, and representatives are closely involved with their communities. While Britain has centralised, almost every other major country has gone in the opposite direction. Countries as varied as Italy, Spain, France, India, China and Brazil have been passing power downwards.
The argument used to justify Britain’s peculiar stance was that centralisation would deliver better services and better results. Whitehall, we were told, is more efficient than town halls. Those arguments look less credible in the wake of lost data and the multiple issues around migration, and they’re even less credible when you look at the facts. The most recent surveys of public service performance show the UK bumping along at the bottom with the US, while countries with much more decentralised systems are well ahead on measurable outcomes.
So have we reached the end of the centralising road? I suspect we have. Many of the big trends which are likely to shape the next few decades point in a localist direction. Climate change is encouraging people to think again about sourcing local food, working locally, driving less and walking more. Equally, an ageing population is likely to care more about the local quality of life. Even the internet is, paradoxically, doing much to strengthen local ties as people find new ways to link up with others living near them.
For all of these reasons the time is ripe for a move against centralisation, and for passing power not just from national government to local authorities, but also from local councils right down to neighbourhoods. This is where democracy needs to start, ideally with directly elected neighbourhood councils, a modernized version of existing parish councils, which should be responsible for issues such as public spaces and play areas. Modest annual precepts, for example, £20 a year, would provide significant enough budgets to get a lot done. I’d encourage these neighbourhood councils also to have formal influence over the council when it is debating issues that affect the area, for example, parking policies. But the top priority is to establish institutions with the power to fix the day-to-day problems that are so often most infuriating to residents.
We then need to re-empower local government itself. This isn’t something that can be done quickly. Half a century ago the most energetic and able people in the community would automatically think of standing for public office. Now the average age of councillors is 58 and most ambitious politicians want to go into the backbenches in Westminster, not to prove themselves running a town, a city or a county.
It will take a long time to turn that around. But as councils regain the power to make real decisions they will also attract more people to stand for office. Money is critical to this and, although government has dithered, I’m convinced that we will see some control over taxation and spending pass back to local government, starting off with the relatively marginal taxes like business rates and taxes on development, but in time moving on to the big ticket items, income tax and VAT.
Were already seeing a reversal of centralisation in inspections and targets. I doubt national targets will ever disappear entirely, but they are being made more flexible and more responsive to specific locations’ needs. One reason for keeping some is that external pressure can improve performance. There are fewer truly dire councils than a decade or two ago partly because of the pressure from inspections. Local government needs to be challenged from above as well as below, just as national governments benefit from the challenge they occasionally get from the European Commission or the OECD.
Creative thinking required Devolution isn’t a simple matter of transferring powers. Instead it requires creative thinking about how responsibilities are balanced. Take health. We’re likely to stick with a national health service, as well as some national targets. But much of public health is already being handled by councils rather than the NHS – they have been responsible for much of the drive to reduce smoking, for example. Primary care trusts and local councils have been making joint appointments for several years.
Health policy is increasingly touching on issues that lie far beyond the health service – from school meals to licensing fried chicken outlets – and local government seems bound to play a bigger role. Policing, too, is shifting to a different structure with national control over issues like organized crime, more local control over crimes such as burglary, theft and violence – potentially under directly elected police chiefs – and then, at a very local level, much more neighbourhood policing directly answerable to the community and focused on issues like anti-social behaviour, graffiti and drugs. Over the last decade there has been faltering progress to put in place better machinery for dealing with issues like this.
Many would agree on the need for structures that bring together all the players in a locality – business, council, the NHS, the emergency services and so on – to think about the whole life of the area and how to meet its future needs. To some extent, Local Strategic Partnerships (LSPs), which began in the late 1990s, already do that, albeit imperfectly.
There’s also widespread agreement that local areas need to be able to adapt targets to their own priorities, and shift money around. Local Area Agreements (LAAs) are meant to be the means of doing this, and great hope is being invested in the idea that they could be the route to steady devolution.
However, both LSPs and LAAs have been smothered with layers of bureaucracy. I was involved in drafting the original outlines for LAAs and LSPs nearly ten years ago. Each took up less than two sides of A4 and we intended them to remain simple and flexible. Yet within weeks they were already generating hundreds of pages of guidance. Every time Whitehall has tried to cut down on the number of separate funding streams and initiatives, new ones come along.
The cynics doubt that Whitehall will ever devolve. Why, they ask, would any elected government give away the power it has struggled so hard to win? It’s certainly easy to be sceptical. But as so many other countries have shown recently, sometimes tides of opinion simply push aside vested interests. Gordon Brown could still make this a defining hallmark of his time in office. He’s already spoken of the need for a new constitutional settlement that could include new entrenched rights and powers for local councils as well as new rights for neighbourhoods to set up their own councils if they wish. David Cameron spoke recently at a Young Foundation event on his plans for giving local councils more freedom to raise money and spend it, and the Conservatives certainly seem keen to contrast themselves with an over bureaucratic centralising Labour Party.
The big barriers to devolution at every level will be psychological as well as practical. Every tier of government believes that those beneath it are incompetent, parochial and prone to corruption. It’s true that the closer you get to street level the less structures matter and the more it is individuals and their relationships that are decisive. That can create problems for issues such as housing allocation or the organisation of accident and emergency. But for many of the issues that matter most at the local level, the solutions are simple and don’t need much structure – whether it’s giving councillors discretionary funds they can spend in collaboration with their community or making it easier for streets to organise their own cleaning. Indeed the best approaches find a lot of common ground between local councils and very local communities. That’s certainly the message from the Neighbourhood Action Network which the Young Foundation has run with nearly 20 local authorities over the past two years.
Do people care enough?
That experience has made us sceptical of one of the other common arguments against devolution beyond the town hall: that people don’t care enough to get involved. Most people would rather not spend their time worrying about recycling contracts or planning approvals, and political party membership has nosedived. But when there is real power at stake and decisions that affect their lives, people are willing to commit time.
There are 400,000 school governors and we live at a time when overall levels of civic activism are a fair bit higher than a generation ago – the idea that everyone is stuck at home with their Wii or their satellite TV is a myth. My sense is that a large minority do want to have a say locally. All that’s holding them back is the absence of accessible and relevant local democracy.
Geoff Mulgan, Guest Editor of this issue of Ethos, is Director of the Young Foundation. From 1997 to 2004, he held various UK government roles including Director of the Strategy Unit and Head of Policy in the Prime Minister’s office.