The government’s big idea is localism. It is said to underlie their approach to planning, to education, to health and to local government. Properly done it can save us money by abolishing government at the centre. If implemented it would mean that the whole country is not cursed with the same centrally imposed mistakes. It still leaves scope for local mistakes. That should make Council elections more interesting and more worthwhile.
Shadow Ministers usually believe in more localism. Ministers often end up taking more central powers. Ministers have in past governments grown frustrated with the response of Councils, standing in the way of their wider vision. The public usually says it likes the idea of localism, but then puts up a barrage of complaints to Ministers and MPs if their area has less than the next or makes mistakes the neighbours do not experience.To many localism in health is a good idea. The postcode lottery over service standards which results is a bad idea.
When we argued about these matters in opposition Shadow Ministers assured us they understood and would not intervene in local matters, even where they thought they were going wrong. Intellectually they grasped it. If government trusts local Councils and other public bodies to make decisions, it has to stand back if they do it badly. Local communities have to be told their redress is to sack the local accountable officials, not seek Ministerial interference.
In practice this is all proving difficult for Ministers. In the case of planning many are worried that the planning policy is too pro developers and does not offer sufficient protection for greenfields. The official response says that the government is abolishing central targets demanding more building. Councils can settle these matters, and protect what they wish in their local plans. Fine. Why then did Inspectors overturn a local decision in my area recently, as the Council has a local plan and the local decision both reflected it and was popular with the public? If localism is to work Inspectors have to back off in such cases.
In education there is little sign of localism working. A group in my area proposed a free school. They, and Councillors, asked me for details of how the scheme would work. The Education department was unable to answer their sensible questions. However, the scheme was clearly centrally driven and required considerable paperwork to be submitted to the Secretary of State who takes the decision about whether to let this school go ahead or not.
The local authority decided to review the catchment area of a popular school. After a long and difficult consultation process with plenty of opinions being expressed they came to a final decision. The Secretary of State then decided to overturn their decision when reviewing it, without himself coming to see the situation on the ground or even consulting the local Council Leader. If a Council cannot even decide school catchments, what can they decide?
Localism requires revolution in Whitehall. It will only be delivered if the bureacratic armies currently overseeing and interfering are stood down and if vast swathes of regulation are cut down. If the government does not wish to do this, then it should tell us, and set out its central vision. Then we could turn our attention to cutting back the local bureaucracies instead.