I was sat in a Sefton cabinet meeting last week discussing an item on ‘Super Schools’. This is another one of New Labour super wheezes. They offer local councils the opportunity of building new schools-in our case we were considering the secondary sector. Inevitably there are strings attached. In order to be allowed to bid you first have to submit a schools strategy to central government. It is made clear that in order to get through this process you have to sign up to the government’s latest fashion in education policy; academies, trust school, PFI’s etc. The Labour leader, Peter Dowd, was delighted. The government to him is endlessly generous. How could anyone question their intentions? If they did he made clear that he would aggressively spin the story to say: ‘Cllr X turns down millions of investment in your child’s education’.
I began to ponder why I was so uncomfortable with this approach. A number of obvious matters suggest themselves. Firstly Peter increasingly strikes me s a colonial governor general more pleased to sing the praises of the imperial parliament than to represent the wishes of the local citizens. Is there nothing he would not sign up to if central government sought to impose it upon an unwilling population? If the central government was Tory and wanted to reintroduce the 11+ would to tugged his forelock and say yes. The Director responsible for Education told the cabinet in public session that this was a ‘top down’ process and had therefore not been subject to the type of consultation that the strategy for primary school has been and that most of us would regard as ‘good practice’ . This had led, inevitably, to some local head teachers expressing their concerns about the impact that this might have on their own schools. Well that got short shrift from Peter. He clearly felt that those involved should listen to the government’s briefings and accept their pearls of wisdom as uncritically as he does. How outrageous to question whether PFI schemes are the best way to fund schools or to have doubts about the Academy programme -after all don’t the both come with a perfect track record?
At the heart of this debate is the role o f local government. Is it there to administer centrally made decision like a PCT, is local government being given responsibility without power, there to take the rap for implementing decisions over which they have extremely limited influence. I would have thought the style and configuration of secondary education was an excellent example of a decision that should be made locally by elected politicians responsible to local people. Our problem is that since local government reorganisation in the early 70’s there is a whole generation of officers and politicians who have grown up scarcely aware that there are alternative viable models.
Firstly there is the whole issue of scale. Why do we believe that bigger and bigger units of government are needed? Power is increasingly centralised and real decisions are taken further away from local people. The new city regions are yet another example of a centralised grab of power. I remember studying European models of local government and was surprised to learn that the average size of municipalities was less than 30,000. Nor were these bodies toothless. In many cases they had real control of Health and Police. No Westminster government would ever allow that. Previous generations of British local government had those powers. I sincerely believe that successful reform of the health service requires that the health service should be accountable to local people who are elected to that that role not selected by central government.
In all these matters money is the key issue. As long as central government hold the purse strings that long will local decision making be a myth. Until we reform the system so that local politicians are responsible for raising the major portion of their income and answerable at the ballot box for their actions we will not have effective local government. Of course there is a need for some equalisation between rich and poor areas but that can be accomplished. It does happen successfully in other nations.
Thatcher openly declared she was taking power away from local government. She did it for ideological reason; to save us from socialism! This government is just obsessed with micro managing everything- hence the battery of centrally imposed targets and guidance. Some are honest as to why the oppose a localist is agenda as Simon Jenkins pointed out in an article recently http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2008/jul/11/localgovernment.localgovernment
They falsely fear that the diversity will lead to inequality. They do not see how the new models may bring forth more excellence. How they must rue the powers that the Scottish parliament has and that the Welsh Assembly is now demanding.
If we want to reinvigorate local democracy we must give it real power and that means tax raising power. There is a genuine problem over recruiting quality people into local government. Not just because it is endlessly time consuming but because it has no real power. It is the same with decentralisation within local government. As long as local area committees have no real power they will become fractious and difficult bodies.
Iain Sharpe, a Watford Lib Dem Councillor, in a town where there is an elected Lib Dem Mayor has argued to me that central government will not meaningfully devolve power to local government unless it opts for something like the Mayoral structure where a local politician has a mandate to rival an MP. That is an interesting thought but there are others who would see that it is just one more hurdle central government has put in the one of local government which even if it clears will not result in any greater decentralisation.
The government has just missed a major opportunity with it’s erroneously entitled White Paper; Communities in Control. It offers us scraps from the table if we beg nicely, little pots of money to collect and spend if we behave. The electorate are to be bribed to vote with promised of being entered into a lottery to win an iPod. It is patronising and useless. If it wants to give Communities control give us the power and the responsibility to make our own decisions and the guarantee that we can raise our own money to do so. Until then we are left with a Governor General model which has personality traits of Delores Umbridge.