From Rates to the Poll Tax: Local Government Finance in the Thatcher Era

By Arthur Midwinter; Claire Monaghan | Go to book overview

CHAPTER SIX
The Limits to Financial Reform

REFORM IN RETROSPECT

For over ten years, local government finance has been facing continuous upheaval. One convenient explanation for this would be the arrival of a reforming government, disenchanted with consensus politics, and committed to radical change. Yet as an accurate description of events, that simply will not do. Bramley observed that in the first five years of Conservative rule, 'what we find is less a case of radical reform in line with carefully considered analysis, and more one of costly, destabilising incrementalism' ( Bramley, 1985, p. 191).

Incrementalism is widely regarded as a descriptively accurate model of how most policies are made in Britain. Bramley interprets it as a process in, 'which policy proceeds by a series of irregular, disconnected, inconsistent, relatively small steps, at no stage departing completely from the status quo, and at no stage being determined by a comprehensively, rational review of options against objectives' ( Bramley, 1985, p. 102). He concludes that the incremental style of policy-making is often defended by political scientists as either inevitable or desirable. There is certainly a normative thrust to the writings of some incrementalists. Braybrooke and Lindblom ( 1963), for example, defend incremental change as a means of avoiding serious lasting mistakes. Bramley argues that in this case, however, incrementalism 'has produced outcomes which would be very hard to defend as desirable from almost any perspective. It has produced a quite substantial, quasi constitutional shift of power, and a whole range of other costs, by a series of disjointed incremental steps' (p. 105).

We would argue that there is a need in analysing financial reform to distinguish between incremental change and an incremental process. There is no doubt that the reforms from 1979 to 1986 were incremental in the former sense -- they constituted minor adjustments to the financial system. From 1986, however, we witnessed quite radical change. Bramley himself saw the poll tax as a non-incremental step in a culture and system dominated by incrementalism ( Bramley, 1990, p. 57).

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