Wednesday, November 14, 2007

Not A Terribly Interesting Post About Local Government.

There was a very good article by Simon Jenkins in the Guardian yesterday about the centralised state of Britain. On the subject of local government he is more insightful and informed than any other current newspaper columnist :
Each year new burdens are imposed on councils under statute, through targets and by centrally negotiated, usually inflationary, wage deals. This, coupled with an ageing population and soaring inward migration, imposes costs on councils that are well above inflation, hence the severe upward pressure each year on council tax.As the burden of meeting local spending has shifted to the centre (from 60% local in the mid-1980s to 25% now), the local share must be covered by an unbuoyant, fixed-band council tax.
The UK is one of the most centralised states in the world and would benefit a good deal from transferring power from Westminster to town halls throughout the country. There are many reasons for this:
  • Public services are simply too large to be run well by anyone on a national scale. Even if the cabinet were populated by men and women with the vision of Alezander the Great, the judgment of Solomon and the management skills of Bill Gates then they would still not be able to do their job well. The abilities of the current cabinet are just a shade below that. To run an organisation the size of the NHS, the Health Secretary can either have a very flat management structure with few tiers of control between themselves and the frontline staff. This will invariably leave each manager too much to run to be able to the job well, they can have real impact on some of what they do but they can' possibly keep track of all their responsibilities. The alternative is for the cabinet minister to sit atop a very vertical management pyramid (something which many of them enjoy), in which there are many layers of control. This means that the management can keep track of their own responsibilities but what they do will have very little impact with what is actually happening to patients. In the absence of any real feedback the senior management will resort to setting targets for their subordinates to meet and the focus would no longer be on the patients, this is what happens currently.
  • Electorates in different parts of the country tend to have different opinions and beliefs about how they want their public services to be delivered. As it is one party gets into power at Westminster and tries to impose their vision on the whole country, leaving many people unsatisfied. Take schools for example, instead of arguing about whether the country should have a comprehensive, selective or voucher system for schools just let local government have the final say and if the voters of South Yorkshire want comprehensives but the people of Hertfordshire want grammars then let them have it, instead of imposing policies in areas where they are not popular. Far more people would have services the way they want them if they are run locally.
  • Comparisons between local services will encourage improvements everywhere. If instead on one government imposing one set of policies nationally there are fifty authorities trying new things and comparing the performance to each other then it can clearly be demonstrated which ideas work and which don't. At the moment there aren't any real points of comparison for public services that most people are familiar with, so governments can fob off objections to their system by misrepresenting the effects of the alternatives. If the alternatives can be seen to be working well a few miles down the road then this trick won't work nearly as well. "Let a thousand flowers bloom" as Mao once said, of course he then killed anyone who thought he meant it, but that is beside the point.
I could give more benefits of transferring power away from the centre, getting Parliament to focus on it's core duties instead of trying to micromanage people's lives, or the encouragement of civil society by persuading people to get involved in running their own communities (which would would have a side benefit for the parties of widening their memberships considerably). However one objection to local government has to be considered and this post is already dragging on a bit (congratulations if you're still reading this by the way).
  • Local government lost power in the first place because the far left took control of them, often by entryist tactics and proceeded to run them into the ground. That was certainly the main reason that Margaret Thatcher stripped them of so much responsibility. Yet after she did that she essentially reinforced their obnoxiousness by preventing their idiotic behaviour from having any effect on the lives of the people who elected them. If voters know that electing lunatics means having to endure the consequences then they will be less inclined to vote for clowns like Derek Hatton or Ken Livingstone. If councils have to raise most of their own revenue themselves they won't be so keen to drive out the taxpayers, if there is one thing that socialists care for more than socialism then it is money. If electors still elect idiots despite the consequences then that is their choice.
At the moment neither Labour nor the Conservatives have any intention whatsoever of relinquishing central power, which is probably detrimental to the parties as a whole but quite beneficial to those at the top of those institutions.

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