Magazine article Public Finance

A Big Local Difficulty

Magazine article Public Finance

A Big Local Difficulty

Article excerpt

THOSE WHO believe that local government has become unwieldy, unresponsive, out of touch and a contradiction in terms might have initially welcomed an apparent localist conversion on the part ofthe Conservative leadership.

David Cameron has committed to setting councils free, with an unprecedented level of devolution from Whitehall to town hall. Senior Tory councillors have countered detractors by insisting that their party leader is not making wild promises from the luxury of opposition. 'He really does mean it,' some insisted after citing Cameron's plan to give councils a new 'general power of competence'. The Tory leader handily decoded his commitment with this mindboggling explanation: 'They can do anything they like as long as if s legal.'

Last week one of Cameron's main lieutenants, shadow schools secretary Michael Gove, reinforced this pledge by claiming that a Tory government would give councils 'significantly' more power. He then told the BBC that Margaret Thatcher was 'wrong in the way she starved local government of power'.

The problem with these fine sentiments is that they collide with other Tory proposals. Courtesy of Gove, local education authorities will be further undermined with plans to let parents set up free-standing community schools. In practice, these would probably be run by existing academies and private education companies rather than by mum and dad.

Then there's the bold vision of a 'Big Society'. As Cameron explained this week, it is aimed at 'breaking open public services to new providers, unleashing the forces of innovation'. The state would mobilise an army of community organisers to recruit people on the ground to 'get stuck into neighbourhoods' (his own words). In this bi-ave new world, it is tempting to join the ranks of sceptics and commentators who think it's all a covert Tory ploy to drastically reduce the power of government, local and national.

Where, they ask, is the evidence that people want to assume the role of community champions, enablers and, collectively, service providers? The obvious rejoinder is that necessity - in the form of savage cuts next year to many frontline public services - could be the mother of creativity in communities.

Let us be clear. It is not just the Tories facing both ways, spouting seemingly contradictoiy messages and ñoating new ideas to give 'communities' - rarely 'councils' - greater control over local services and public assets. …

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