If ‘localism’ is to succeed, more power should be given to the people, not local government
There are now 1,645,500 people employed by local authorities in England alone. Since that figure excludes teachers, the majority of the 1.6 million are bureaucrats. Some of them appear to do very little except prevent local people from organising local services in ways that they know will improve their own communities.
Everyone will have an example of local government incompetence, inefficiency and obstructiveness. I live in the London Borough of Hackney, a local authority that for decades has been a byword for incompetence, inefficiency and obstructiveness.
One revealing example of how local authorities can interfere with, and block, the desires of ordinary people to get involved in the community concerns a neighbour of mine named Rosie Jones. Aware that there were many elderly and disabled people living in our neighbourhood who needed help, Rosie decided she would volunteer to visit some of them. Because the local authority is responsible for organising social services and welfare, that required applying to Hackney’s Community Resources Team (CRT).
As a result of contacting that organisation, Rosie began visiting a woman whom I will call Gemma. She is severely disabled – she cannot walk, leave her home or even wash or feed herself without help. On paper, the CRT provides Gemma with a carer who comes in twice a day for a total of six-and-a-half hours a week. In reality, a carer – Hackney contracts out Gemma’s care to a private company – appears at Gemma’s home for a maximum of five minutes in the evenings and often not at all. The official papers, however, say that Gemma receives care twice a day for six-and-a-half hours a week, and CRT officials believe it.
Rosie, naturally, wanted to provide Gemma with some of the services the carer was failing to bestow, such as making her tea and cooking for her. Gemma was understandably delighted. Rosie then made the mistake of telling the CRT that she was helping to feed Gemma. Its reaction was horror: how could Rosie do such a thing? She was expressly forbidden from doing so. Why not, Rosie inquired. “To preserve health and safety,” the officials replied. Whose health and safety would that be? It couldn’t be Gemma’s, Rosie told them, because she was in danger of starving due to the fact that the person supposed to prepare food for her didn’t turn up. The CRT remained unmoved. If Rosie cooked Gemma some food to which she was allergic, it said, the council would be legally liable for the damage to Gemma’s health. So was the CRT saying it would be better that Gemma starved? “We will address the care plan,” was the only reply.
They did not; nothing changed. Rosie said she would take Gemma out to the shops so she could buy food for herself. “On no account should you do that,” the CRT told her. “You have not been trained in pushing wheelchairs.” At that point, Rosie simply gave up and started visiting Gemma not as a volunteer from the council but as a friend, which she had by then become. But the CRT disapproves of that as well and wants to stop it. It is “going beyond the boundaries which are set”, the resources team said.
Gemma is one of hundreds, possibly thousands, of people living in Hackney who are in need of help. The council not only fails to provide it but tries to prevent citizens like Rosie Jones from stepping in to fill the gap. It would be wrong to claim that every local council is as incompetent as Hackney, but many do exhibit, if in a less extreme form, the ineptitude, bureaucratic inertia and obstructiveness that Hackney’s CRT demonstrates in Gemma’s case. The ability of local authorities to combine those three unlovely characteristics is very effective at stopping ordinary citizens from getting involved in the provision of local services. Who, knowing of Rosie’s experience, would volunteer to help the needy in their neighbourhood through Hackney CRT?
The bureaucratic power that local authorities wield poses a serious problem for “localism”, the doctrine that power should be devolved from central government to local people. Leading politicians are increasingly vocal in their support of “localism”. Famously, David Cameron, who dubbed himself “the Man with the Plan” in his speech to the Conservative Party Conference last October, has made it clear that localism is a central part of his plan (it may be the only thing about it that is clear). “I passionately believe we need to localise power,” Mr Cameron has said. Even Gordon Brown, who by instinct is an unreconstructed centraliser, has made noises, with as much conviction as he can muster, to the effect that communities need to be “empowered” and power “decentralised”.
It is not before time. The enormous growth in central government that has taken place over the past 60 years has happened without any evidence at all that when the State gets bigger, it gets better. Indeed, the whole experience since the Second World War – from the failure of communism to the chronic inefficiencies of the welfare states operated by most developed countries – points in precisely the opposite direction.
If practice suggests that bigger is worse, so too does theory. As Douglas Carswell MP and Daniel Hannan MEP point out in their invaluable new self-published book on localism, The Plan (Douglas Carswell, £9.50) no one has been able to come up with anything to counter Friedrich Hayek’s argument, made more than 70 years ago, that officials in central government never possess the amount of accurate information they need to be able to take effective decisions. Even granting the assumption that government officials are all wholly selfless people who want only to choose the option that is best for everyone – an assumption which is not, to put it mildly, enormously plausible – the claim that they are ever in a position to know “what’s best” is simply bogus.
It means, as Carswell and Hannan rightly insist, that if we want to improve the quality of decisions in the area of public policy, those decisions should be “taken as closely as possible to the people they affect” – and ideally by the people they affect. They pile up examples, mostly from the US, which show that services such as education, policing and welfare are radically improved when the people who have to use them are given at least some control over them – usually through local referenda that ensure that those given the power to run them have to follow policies specifically endorsed by the local electorate.
Carswell and Hannan advocate devolving many of the functions directly to local people and they provide some detailed suggestions for how it could be made to happen in Britain. There are, however, limits to how far the process can be taken that stem from the extent to which people can be expected to devote to “governing themselves”. It costs money, depending on how much time it takes. This is a problem which confronted Jean-Jacques Rousseau: one of the first, and most extreme, advocates of direct democracy in the modern world. He never solved it. He merely pointed out that the citizens of Athens and the Roman republic could devote themselves to politics because “slaves did the work”. The division of labour involved in representative democracy – which Rousseau thought was an abdication of civic responsibility and represented a decision by the people to “become slaves themselves” – is actually a reasonable response to the fact that, for most people, taking part in political decisions is not the only or even necessarily the supreme value. For most of us, politics of any kind will not be the major focus of our lives: time with our families, pursuing leisure activities or doing whatever we have to do to pay the bills, will take precedence. It won’t leave much time for thinking about, still less participating in, government of any sort, local or national.
It is not reasonable to expect that every citizen will, or could, devote most of his or her time to debating and deciding what policy decisions should be taken, which is what they would have to do if everything, from health care to planning, from welfare to education, really were devolved directly to them at the local level. Nevertheless, the “localists” are certainly right that we could all have far more influence over decisions affecting the delivery of those services than we do at the moment – and if we did, we would be better governed. If “localism” just means giving more power to local authorities, it won’t be worth having. Local government follows priorities and policies dictated by central government, which provides most of its funds. Local elections are rarely about local issues, and almost never lead to any change, which is why an increasing number of people entitled to vote in them don’t even bother to do so.
If localism is ever to get off the ground, the size and power of local authorities must be drastically reduced. Ordinary citizens simply won’t get involved in “taking responsibility” for local services and policies if councils can continue to make the costs of doing so enormous and the benefits tiny. Local authority officials have a vital advantage over ordinary citizens: they are paid for what they do. They can attend meetings for hours on end without risking their jobs or needing to find someone to care for their children. For ordinary citizens, getting involved in a local issue and trying to change the way it is handled by the local authority always involves a sacrifice, if only of time. For the officials, however, it is merely “part of the job”. It gives them the ability to wear down citizens by attrition. Ordinary people are often willing to give up some time and effort to improve their communities – but their commitment has limits. Citizens who were originally concerned to change something eventually come to the conclusion that it’s just not worth it because it involves too much time, effort and frustration, for no tangible benefit. I have witnessed this process at first hand. Although there are some people committed enough to put up with all the boredom and aggravation, many, understandably, are not.
So if it is to succeed in enabling local people to take the decisions that affect their own communities, localism will have to involve the dismantling of large chunks of local government bureaucracy. That would obviously be of great benefit in many ways, not least because the amount of waste in local government is enormous. There is a colossal amount of pointless duplication, with committees piling on committees. Radically diminishing the size of local government would have the additional advantage of saving council taxpayers a part of their bill.
Cutting back local authority bureaucracy is a “no-brainer”. But not one of the major political parties has pledged to do it. In fact, none of them has even seriously discussed it. Presumably, that is because none wants to take on the collective power of local bureaucrats. Yet unless that power is confronted and dismantled, localism is bound to fail.
Until the main parties produce concrete plans for radically diminishing the size of local authorities, their pronouncements on the topic are nothing more than empty rhetoric. Decent and public-spirited citizens such as Rosie Jones – precisely the people who need to be involved in local activities – won’t get involved. And that will mean that the plight of people like Gemma, whom local authorities so frequently fail to help, will continue to get worse.