The current government are very keen to talk about localism. It’s second only to the, much talked about but rarely explained, Big Society, on their list of favoured nebulous concepts that sound like they might possible be a good idea, but only in a way sufficiently vague not to offend anybody.
Localism is more than just an idea though. It’s a whole Act of Parliament. The Localism Act, passed in November 2011, covers areas such as planning, local council structures and housing provision. The claim is that the Act, and other pieces of coalition policy, make decision making more localised and, therefore, more directly accountable to local voters. It’s dubious whether the Act actually does that at all. For example, the Act allows central government to cap levels of council tax rise, and define who should be considered high priority in housing allocation.
The other poster-policy for localism has been the introduction of elected police commissioners. Commissioners were elected in November 2012 with stunningly low turnout and high levels of spoilt papers. The idea is that an elected police commissioner is more accountable than a committee-based police authority, and, therefore, power is handed-back to the wider electorate.
Let’s unpick that a bit. A major premise here is that elected individuals are intrinsically more accountable. In one sense that’s clearly true. After a specified period of time the people who chose them get to consider their successes and failures and decide whether to let them carry on. However, it’s only true in a very limited sense. Officials elected for a fixed term are incredibly difficult to get rid of before the end of that term. If an elected police commissioner is just a bit irritatingly incompetent there’s no neat way of sacking them until election time comes around. (Worryingly, the same is true of Prime Ministers.) That means that an elected police commissioner in the first couple of years isn’t really accountable at all, knowing that all but the most major cock-ups of the first half of the term will be forgotten by election time. Similarly, a police commissioner with no intention of standing for re-election isn’t accountable to anyone at all, knowing that they will never actually have to explain their decisions or defend their record.
There’s another problem with the localism agenda and it’s highlighted by playing a very simple game when you watch the news. Every time you hear a national politician talking about “increasing local accountability,” simply replace the phrase with the words “decreasing our accountability,” because that’s what it means. Frustrated by the slow response of the police? That would be a local issue. Cold, wet, and hungry because of the lack of affordable housing? That would be a local issue. But they’re not local issues, because central government retains its control of the purse strings. They want local police forces and local councils to appear accountable for local decisions, but they also want to maintain a capped level of council tax and reduce national police funding. That means that local councils and police commissioners are expected to be accountable for reduced outputs, but aren’t allowed to control the financial inputs.
More recently, the Local Government Secretary, Eric Pickles, has gone further, demanding that local councils re-instate weekly bin collections, and threatening cuts in funding for those who don’t comply. You can understand Pickles’ concern over the bin-emptying turmoil sweeping the country. I don’t see anyway that a rational individual could look across the national political landscape and conclude that anything other than how often people’s wheely bins get emptied was the most pressing issue facing the nation.
What we have here is central government setting local decision makers up to take the blame for the way that national policies play out in local communities. Local councils and police commissioners aren’t able to set their own budgets and, increasingly, see their spending priorities dictated from Westminster too. They then take the flak for reductions in local services, because, the coalition tell us, these are local issues. All the while, the coalition talk about localism, directing voter’s attention, and anger, towards their local politicians, rather than national government, which is naughty of them really. Bad politicians. Bad.
So that’s my little rantette for this week. Come back next week, when there’s a reasonable chance I’ll be talking about 1% rises in welfare benefits and 30% rises in MPs’ pay, unless something more interesting distracts me in the meantime of course. Toodle-pip.