What do I think of local government?
I was asked this question by David Cameron this morning. Or at least I received an email from some lackey at Tory central office informing of a green paper published by the party which spells out plans to give councils more power.
As most students of Politics will know, local government doesn’t do very much. In fact, it is probably safe to say that a student could still be capable of securing a top grade in A level Politics without even being aware of its existence. We had the leader of our local council into school recently to explain what he does. He mentioned quite a few things, but none struck me as particulalrly important. He tries his best to lay out a case for saying how the council made an impact on our lives, but didn’t manage to convince us. I guess the lack of any real power is the reason why he is giving up the job to run as an MP - probably with the hope of making it into government (central, that is).
Yet it has not always been the case that local government had little influence. Ever wondered why those people whose job it is to make sure that your bins are emptied occupied such grand buildings? Here I refer you to the impressive structures to be found in the centre of our northern towns. In an idle moment do a google images search of Leeds, Manchester or Bradford town halls. The last of which was, believe it or not, modelled on the Palazzo Vecchio in Florence. These grand edifices were testament to the power of local authorities to make real change. In the late nineteenth century, it was not Whitehall that was responsible for modernising Britain in introducing gas and water, but local government. Jo Chamberlain, father of Neville and Austin, as mayor of Birmingham was proud to leave office having “parked, paved, assized, marketed, gas & watered and improved” his adopted city.
It’s ironic in an Alanis Morissette kind of way that the Conservative Party are championing the birth of a new localism, in planning to give local people more control of their lives. They were responsible for taking away most of their powers in the first place. For Mrs Thatcher in the 1980s it seemed that local was a dirty word. Amongst other things she inrtroduced a host of measure to cap their spending, took schools away, ran down the social housing stock, and scrapped the Greater London Council and six metro authorities.
So, David, do you have my support on this? I’m not going to vote for you, but yes. Moving power away from central government has to be a good thing. At the very least, local government couldn’t make things much worse. Half of the nation’s 16 year olds are functionally illiterate. Public transport is a joke. Our beloved NHS, the world’s third largest public employer, is such a failed model that no other country in the world has chosen to copy it. And the police spend too much time filling out bits forms when they should be out catching criminals.
Do I belive that the Tories will usher in a massive transfer of power once in office? I’m not holding my breath.
To read more on the Tory proposals, click here.