Cllr Mario Creatura is a councillor for Coulsdon West Ward in Croydon
All good conservatives should, at least in theory, believe in fighting the mission-creep of government. Decrease the unnecessary role of our elected officials to nothing more than that which is absolutely essential and trust that communities can use the additional powers they are granted to create bespoke services tailor-made to their local areas.
This has been aggressively championed by the Chancellor and Greg Clark, the intensely pro-local new Communities Secretary, who have rightly made it their mission to empower the regions with initial plans to create a ‘Northern Powerhouse’ and reignite the elected Mayoral debate.
The libertarian arguments are solid: reducing the size of central government reduces the cost to the taxpayer. Reduce the cost to the taxpayer and that gives individuals a greater say over their local services. For who in the ivory Whitehall tower knows better than us what we need of our hyper-local public services?
While localism has its undeniable advantages, there are risks attached. Within days of the election the Government published the first draft of what will assuredly become the Cities and Local Government Devolution Act 2015.
The Bill does makes it explicit that combined authorities can assume the “General Power of Competence”, which in theory could allow for local government to pursue any activity that is not explicitly prohibited by central government. Here is one area where risk lies.
Let’s use, as an example, a subject dear to most of us: beer.
In 2014, over a hundred local authorities deliberately moved to restrict higher-strength beers and ciders in local bars, pubs and off licences. Jeremy Beadles, Chair of the Future Beer Group, wrote at the time:
“Local authority higher-strength schemes represent a serious threat, not just because they seek to restrict market access, but because they risk fundamentally undermining the reputation of the beer and cider categories as a whole.”
The Reducing the Strength campaign is challenging this power and it is currently being considered by the European Commission who report back later this year.
The British Beer and Pub Association has no problem supporting the UK Government policy of a ban on below-cost selling and, together with brands such as Heineken, endorse policies and initiatives targeted at the minority of those who misuse alcohol, but they note that there is no firm evidence that bans on higher strength beer and cider have any direct impact on alcohol-related harm. Indeed, the industry suggests that pursuing this policy may displace drinkers to purchase products somewhere else or to alternative and potentially higher strength products.
Without national debate or scrutiny, devolved assemblies and local authorities may have the power to pursue anti-choice, populist and evidence-lite policies such as this. Policies that restrict the choices and freedoms of the vast majority that consume moderately. Is this a possible downside to the ‘power to the people’ devolution agenda?
In 2010, ten local authorities in and around Manchester hoped to pass a by-law that would set a minimum price of 50p per unit of alcohol in an honourable attempt to end the cheap deals blamed for drink-fuelled disorder and health problems. With the Government championing ‘Devo Manc’ and with flexible clauses in the latest devolution Bill, this could distort the market and have a significant impact on regional economies.
This Conservative Government has got off to a great start, but it must examine the philosophically appealing merits of localism carefully. If done right, it will enfranchise millions and stimulate regional and national economies. If not considered carefully then it could result in differing regional prices, harm growth and unnecessarily restrict consumer freedoms.