This column, being about local government, is often dedicated to exposing the wrongdoings or praising the good work of particular local councils. That’s understandable, given the subject matter.
However, it would be wrong to look at only one side of the equation. Good local government is only truly possible in the presence of sensible central government – or rather, I should say, in the absence of bad, meddling central government.
There are plenty of examples of this in recent years.
Far too often local councils have wanted to do something worthwhile, but have been forbidden by Whitehall diktat. Even worse, they are often compelled to pursue bad policies by a centralised government that constantly thinks its own one-size-fits-all approach is best.
Even instances of centralised control that have been intended to do a short-term good have ended up as a long-term ill. A good example of this is Margaret Thatcher’s government, which drew to itself much increased power of local councils.
Mrs Thatcher did so for the good reason of reigning in loony lefty councils that were set to make local residents’ lives a misery, but she made a serious error my assuming that she would always be in charge. In later years those same powers have been used by an often loony lefty central government to bind and boss about perfectly sensible local councils.
It would have been better in the long run to have allowed local voters in loony lefty areas to throw out their councils themselves – or bear the financial burden of their poor decision, had they chosen to persevere with them.
At last, I believe, with the new Coalition Government we are starting to see the trend for meddlesome Government changing.
I was both gobsmacked and hugely encouraged at the Police Federation conference to hear Theresa May’s answers to many of the questions coming from the audience.
Time after time, on a whole range of issues, she refused to provide an answer. Not in that wheedly way that so many politicians use of trying to give what sounds like an answer but is actually an evasion – far from it, she merrily openly rejected the concept of the questions she was being asked.
“I’m the Home Secretary, and it’s not my business to dictate how everything should run in every part of the country” was the typical answer.
This was fantastic to hear. Where her predecessors (of both main Parties) would happily have leapt to their feet and promised that the Government could solve everything with more targets, orders, directives and Acts, she rightly refused to get involved.
The same goes for much of the news emanating from Eric Pickles’ office. Where previous Governments took more and more power over council budgets, Mr Pickles is set to give it back. The enforced ringfencing of large swathes of local government spending is to be removed, and local government is set to become that bit more local once again.
As Ronald Reagan said, the nine scariest words in the English language are “I’m from the Government and I’m here to help”. If the Coalition can stop saying that phrase altogether and instead make a habit of
saying “I’m from the Government and you’re free to do what you want”, that would be a real change for the better.