There can't have been a parliamentary candidate in the land who did not deliver an encomium during this past month on the virtues of "local communities". For politicians of all stripes, the local is now invoked as a post-political nirvana, miraculously free of conflict between interest groups and the cynicism that poisons national politics. The manifestos of all three main parties, including Labour, were hymns to the local. New Labour's supposed control freaks seem desperate to relinquish their grip. Its leaders begin a third term in the belief that there is a voracious public appetite for devolved power.
Are they right? And is the "new localism", as Labour rather drily calls it, really such a good idea? Like "stakeholding" before it, new localism spans a multitude of often contradictory policies, ranging from giving councils more power (John Prescott) to bypassing them with new, elected police, school and hospital boards (Alan Milburn). Hazel Blears (a Home Office minister in the past parliament) wants to give communities extra policing if they have a whip-round to pay half the costs themselves. Stephen Byers wants local referendums, so that voters can sack public sector managers if the bins aren't emptied on time, or if the local leisure-centre changing rooms are breeding verrucas.
The Blairite shock troops see this "democracy and drains" as the first stage of a revolution. For Byers, the only way to restore trust in politics is to "move power from the state". Milburn grandiosely claims that "we have reached the limits of the 20th-century statist approach to governance".
Yet local politicians are less trusted than those at national level. According to the polling company MORI, only 32 per cent of people think they get value for money from their local council--a figure lower even than during the poll-tax era. Council tax attracts far more bile than any nationally levied taxes, despite accounting for less than 5 per cent of the taxes most people pay. And despite the fretting about general-election turnout, the figures for local elections have often dipped below 20 per cent.
The biggest scandals in governance over the past 20 years have been local--from the imprisonment of Doncaster city councillors for accepting bribes, through Dame Shirley Porter's gerrymandering, and on to the postal-vote jobbery for Birmingham council seats last year. Moreover, the claim that local politicians are somehow more "in touch" with their electorates is belied by statistics, which make Westminster seem like the Notting Hill Carnival: councillors have an average age of 57 and, overwhelmingly, they are white, male and retired.
The first "new localist" experiment--public elections to the boards of foundation hospitals--was hardly inspiring. Richard Lewis of the King's Fund says the boards have some "pretty substantive powers", including the "nuclear option of removing the non-executive directors". But at Guy's and St Thomas's Hospital in London, where the first election was held in April last year, only 900 people voted, out of an eligible local population of more than half a million.
"As soon as you set up boards," says Andrew Collinge from MORI, "the usual suspects put themselves forward who are already active in local politics."
The same is true wherever there are local elections. School governors are now expected to decide on "strategic educational direction". Yet schools find it difficult to enlist parents to become governors: most appointments are uncontested. One head-teacher told me: "A lot of governors are out of their depth. They don't understand the assessment system or the demands of the national curriculum ... but they are expected to pass comment on teaching standards on the flimsiest knowledge." As most parents become busier, those with strong but unrepresentative views put themselves forward. Another senior teacher complained that an evangelical Christian governor had demanded that her school "replace the annual school trip to France with a religious retreat". …