Local means national. Devolution means better central control.
In Labourâ€™s world of doublespeak there are many dictionaries telling us how words mean something else to the government.
Gordon Brown and Hazel Blears told us that they would free local government. They sought nothing less than a â€œreinvention of the way we governâ€, â€œan historic transfer of power from Whitehall to the town hall..â€
That was quite a promise. When Hazel Blears finished work on the policy behind it, it turned out very differently.
In the memorable work â€œThe New Performance frameworkâ€ we are told how 1200 indicators for local authority performance were being trimmed to a neat 198. These in turn would be boiled down to a modest 35 targets amongst the national indicators, supplemented by a trim 17 statutory targets on educational attainment.
We are assured that â€œThe national indicator set will be the only measures on which central government will manage outcomes delivered by local governmentâ€. Well thereâ€™s a relief then. They only cover a few minor matters like the economy, the environment, equality, health and wellbeing, children and young people, stronger communities and safer communities. That should leave plenty of scope for local government to do other things that are different!
The detail of the slimmed down regime is bizarre. Local Authorities have to track the proportion of â€œlocal people who feel they can influence decisions in their localityâ€, the engagement in the arts, perceptions of anti social behaviour, satisfaction with how the police and the Council are dealing with it, the ethnic composition of offenders on Youth Justice systems disposals, the emotional health of children, healthy life expectancy, the proportion of decent Council homes, non principal roads needing maintenance, bus services running on time, active management of biodiversity sites, and many others.
The strategic objectives are as wide ranging as the indicators are detailed. Councils have to make communities safer, reduce the risk of terrorism, secure a healthy natural environment, encourage more widespread enjoyment of culture and sport, achieve world class standards in education and create sustainable patterns of consumption and production amongst others.
These Ministers are crazy. There is no way they can control the level of detail in 198 indicators, or fairly asses Councils in respect of so many wide ranging and grandiose aims. Anyone who has experience of managing knows you have to keep targets simple and few in number. They need to be stretching but achievable. You also understand that if you attempt to drive everything by such targets you are running a highly centralised system, not a devolved one.
Now wonder performance in the public sector is often so poor. An army of people is needed to collect the figures, to fathom out ways of presenting them more favourably or getting round them. They completely distort what Councils are trying to do. Money is doled out in part in relation to these targets and in part as a result of the star system of rating based on these targets.
The old idea was we elect Councillors to set a course and run the management of our local Council. If they do well we re-elect them, if they do not we replace them. That was accountability. The government has hijacked it with its rules, circulars and targets from Whitehall. Slimming down to 198 still leaves the whole system ossified and centalised. It makes it dear, reluctant to innovate, and resentful of the centre.
No wonder there is so little local democracy and so little interest in local elections. People realise their Council has been hijacked from the centre. Gordon Brown and Hazel Blears clearly hate local democracy, which is why they have invented this overweening set of levers, controls, circulars and regulations. It makes everything much dearer, and means better Councils cannot show how much better they could be.