By Greg Clark MP, Minister of State for Communities and Local Government.
Seven years ago, I wrote a book called Total Politics, which set out the case against the growing dominance of central government over the public sphere. Today, the Government, in which I serve as Minister for Decentralisation, is publishing what could be seen as a sequel –but not just another a pamphlet, because this is a guide to a groundbreaking piece of legislation, the Localism Bill.
Governments often talk about the historical significance of their actions, even if they’re more likely to be manufacturing hype than making history. However, I believe that the Bill does represent a genuine turning point.
Over the past one hundred years, successive waves of centralisation have pushed Westminster politics and Whitehall bureaucracy into aspects of public life that once belonged to local people and communities. As a result, our country has become one of the most centralised in the western world. In nations as diverse as America, Sweden, Japan, Spain, Canada, Germany and France, citizens are trusted to make decisions over a greater proportion of public expenditure – and at more local a level – than our citizens are allowed to.
This is wrong and it has to change – not least because it doesn’t work. Record levels of spending were channelled through the most sophisticated system of state control in Britain’s history. Elaborate mechanisms of audit, inspection, targets and guidance enabled the centre to micromanage the public sphere to an unprecedented degree. Yet it failed.
Our public services were not reformed, fundamental social problems have not been solved and the legacy left behind is one of enormous debt. The reasons for this failure are similar to those for the failure of earlier governments to manage nationalised industries: Centralised systems impose bureaucracy, discourage initiative, monopolise resources, suppress diversity, restrict information and bypass those who best understand local needs and priorities.
The Localism Bill provides the legislative foundation for a new start – and as set out in today’s publication there are the six essential actions that characterise not only the Bill, but the Government’s decentralisation programme as a whole. They are to:
- Lift the burden of bureaucracy – by removing the cost and control of unnecessary red tape and regulation, whose effect is to restrict local action.
- Empower communities to do things their way – by creating rights for people to get involved with, and direct the development of, their communities.
- Increase local control of public finance – so that more of the decisions over how public money is spent and raised can be taken within communities.
- Diversify the supply of public services – by ending public sector monopolies, ensuring a level-playing field for all suppliers, giving people more choice and a better standard of service.
- Open up government to public scrutiny – by releasing government information into the public domain, so that people can know how their money is spent, how it is used and to what effect.
- Strengthen accountability to local people – by giving every citizen the power to change the services provided to them through participation, choice or the ballot box.
By definition, power can only be decentralised by the centre. That means overcoming the resistance of those with power to share it with others. However, the Coalition Government – itself founded on an agreement to share power – is determined to bring about a profound and enduring change in Britain’s governing culture.
Together, the six essential actions described above constitute a gold standard for decentralisation: One that will be required of every department and at every level of government.