Cllr Gareth Lyon is a councillor in Rushmoor and the Chairman of the Aldershot and North Hants Conservative Association.
It is time for a new kind of devolution. One based not on setting up new tiers of Government to employ yet more politicians and bureaucrats. But on the principles which Douglas Carswell has advocated – dispersing power and making it much more accountable and actually stripping away bureaucracy in the process.
When Brexit finally is resolved, there will still be an overwhelming demand throughout the country to “take back control” of more of the decisions affecting their lives. Certainly, the advance of technology and the way in which most of the service sector has become increasingly personalised and hyper-responsive as a result means that the status quo is no longer defendable.
For a long time, there has been an aversion in our party to devolving too much power to local government. The cautionary tales are still vivid of Liverpool, London, and other hard-left local councils in the 1980s, which were more concerned about solidarity with the Soviet Union and pointless gesture politics than actually improving the lives of their residents.
The problem is that the solution – centralising responsibility for more and more areas to central Government – has led to a negative spiral. Fewer talented, effective, and creative people end up putting themselves forward to be local councillors, knowing that their influence is that much lower. We also see the same diminution in the quality of many of the people working in local government. But this, in turn, leads to even less trust in local government and even more centralisation of power, and so on.
Attempts to devolve power to nations within the UK have clearly done little to improve the quality of government. In Scotland, the ruling party has an appalling record on public services, and focusses entirely on calling for yet another referendum (the irony of wanting more power but not having shown any interest in using the powers they have appears lost on them). The Cardiff Bay administration is seen as an expensive joke in most of Wales, and, of course, Northern Ireland has struggled even to keep an administration together.
I sincerely hope that the new batch of regional Mayors, like Andy Street, are more effective than most regional government. They do face a major challenge in as much as there is so little shared understanding in terms of politics, priorities and identity in areas as vast as a region.
Many county councils see unitary status as a solution to these problems. I agree to an extent, unitary government is a good thing but most counties (and my own in Hampshire in particular) are still too large and diverse to really feel local and responsive to most people who live there.
Instead, a good starting point for this process is asking: what works well? Where are people most likely to know their local authority and their local political representatives?
Both in the UK and outside, the answer seems to be in units of about 100,000 people – so a medium sized town, a few small towns together, or a rather larger rural area.
There are certainly many district or borough councils of around this size which are performing extremely well. Rushmoor Borough Council is a good example of this – topping performance measures in many of the services it provides, gradually reducing the burden of council tax, but by transformation and imaginative investment – not through “cuts” – and finding more ways to engage local residents.
While some services may have capital costs or risks which might seem too great for councils of this size, there really is no reason why councils should not be able to work across county or even regional borders to form consortia to supply these services. Again, this is fairly standard in many other European or US forms of local government.
Going back to the fear of a new wave of Ken Livingstones or Derek Hattons being visited again on the world – there is a simple and safe way of rolling this approach out, and guarding against future excesses.
In the early days of Michael Gove’s Academies Programme, high performing and well-led schools were allowed to become the first converter academies, taking on unprecedented levels of responsibility in terms of education and budget.
The evidence of the success of this policy, both on themselves and on the wider education system, is now so overwhelming as to be almost inarguable.
A similar approach could be adopted with local authorities. The Ministry of Housing Comminities and Local Government and its manifold agencies hold plenty of data on which borough and councils are well-led and high performing.
Like academies – let’s set them free with full responsibility for all decisions and services in their areas. Some will thrive on their own. Others will band together in chains of various degrees of formality and integration. All will innovate, strip out layers of bureaucracy, and localise accountability, power, and control. Back to where they belong. The people.
It is time for a revolution in local government to fulfil the rhetoric of the last few years, and to improve all tiers of government in this country.