Trusting in local democracy

by Stephen Tall on February 28, 2006

An excellent article by Philip Stephens in today’s Financial Times: read it quick, before it disappears behind their firewall. Here’s a teaser to encourage you…

Time to put trust in local democracy

… For the past several decades ministers of all colours have promised to devolve power closer to the people. The same politicians have pledged to abolish the so-called postcode lottery. Hospitals, schools, police forces, social services departments, refuse collection – all must be set free. As long, that is, as councils offer identical services. Pluralism is fine until it becomes a threat to uniformity. Localism is laudable if it does not challenge centralism. …

We no longer pretend that there is some great political choice between capitalism and socialism; spreading affluence has seen tribalism give way to individualism. I would add the conduct of the media, above all, broadcasters. Television and radio has all but abandoned the reporting of public policy in favour of gossip and intrigue at Westminster. Interviewers make their names by scoring points rather than eliciting truths. …

Is all this [talk of local power] empty rhetoric or a signal of serious intent? There is a simple test. Local democracy can be restored only if financial power is devolved. That in turn depends on an overhaul of local government finance that allows councils to raise most of the money they spend. As long as town halls must rely on central government for 80 per cent of their cash, Whitehall will always know best.

Devolution should not be unconditional. Councils must not be permitted to impose their own brands of stifling uniformity by barring, for example, schools from establishing innovative new partnerships. But unless and until ministers are ready to trust local people, we should treat their words as so much hot air.

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