Robert Colvile is the director of Direct Democracy.
As the loans-for-peerages affair is teaching us, when it comes to politics the people with the money have the power. For the past decade, Gordon Brown has had remarkable control over the domestic agenda simply because he controls who gets how much cash. Similarly, to achieve its countless objectives and targets, the Government has become expert at linking the cash it doles out to the programmes it wants to see implemented. But now all that could change.
Displaying astute political judgment (or an exemplary, career-boosting anticipation of his leader’s wishes), Nick Hurd MP has topped the ballot for Private Members’ Bills – the one chance ordinary MPs, let alone the public, get to affect the legislative agenda – and has promptly put forward the Sustainable Communities Bill, published by David Cameron in association with the pressure group Local Works earlier this month. Despite its neutral-sounding title, the Bill actually does something very important: tilts the balance of power (and funding) away from central and towards local government.
Under the Bill, the Secretary of State has to tell councils how much is being spent in their area, and on what. But, if they decide they don’t like this, councils can then come up with their own spending plans on a range of issues – services, jobs, fighting poverty, energy efficiency, carbon emissions, transport, local democracy and so much more. At a stroke, central government goes from dictating to communities to assisting them in carrying out their own priorities.
There will be objections to this plan, on the grounds that however useless the Government is, some councils are even worse (we cannot all, more’s the pity, be lucky enough to live in Wandsworth). David Cameron himself has acknowledged that a postcode lottery is inevitable. “At different times, different areas will have different services and different standards of service,” he writes. “Some areas will sometimes do better than others. Some areas will make mistakes where others will succeed.” But, he continues: “It is by permitting local communities to develop their own priorities and their own innovations that we will produce a far higher general standard.”
This is very true – and it is also true that the reason councils are inefficient, and profligate, is largely that they are not accountable: not responsible for the money they receive, or the money they spend. They are, as Mr Cameron says, “the local outposts of central government” rather than “the collective instrument of local people”.
If councils have attracted poor quality personnel, it is because they have no power – just as national politicians have had their powers siphoned away by Brussels, the judiciary and the quangocracy, so have councils been stripped of true responsibility. If a community could control, really control, its own transport policy (for example), many more people would get involved in trying to fix it – and who can doubt that local people know their own problems and solutions better than bureaucrats sitting in Whitehall?
Our group, Direct Democracy, was established last year with the aim of wresting back powers from the centre. We launched with a manifesto for the Conservative Party that would see the party take localism into its heart. Since then, “localism” has become a buzzword used by the unlikeliest of figures – such as Gordon Brown, the most centralising Chancellor in history.
But the Sustainable Communities Bill is a sign, we fervently hope, that the Cameron Conservatives do not just talk local, but think local as well – that they are prepared, as so few Governments or prospective Governments have been, to sacrifice their own powers for the good of all. If the last decade of Labour Government has taught us anything, it is that the directives that flow from Whitehall are not the solution to this country’s problems, but the cause. This Bill is the start of the long process of correcting that.