As the Localism Bill committee came to a conclusion last month, the clear divisions between Labour and the Government became even clearer. Labour desperately wishes to appear to favour localism, so much so that they parrot the mantra at every available opportunity. Methinks they doth protest too much!
Every debate commenced with at least one reference to their undying support for localism. It’s an ironic Damascene conversion after thirteen years of the most centralising government in our democratic history. Historical references were plentiful during the committee stage: Ancient Greece, the Magna Carta, Henry VIII and the so-called halcyon days of local government under the benevolent gaze of a Labour government. A grand historical tour, outlined in wonderful prose by Jack Dromey, the only man to win an all-woman shortlist to become an MP. To be fair, he managed to keep a tongue firmly wedged in his cheek throughout proceedings. At least I hope he intends his speeches to be satirical, otherwise we have more to worry about then we thought!
Labour face a dilemma, their instinct is to oppose this bill, as they genuinely believe that central government knows best. Yet they are desperate to display support for localism, as they know it is the right policy. Therefore, they say they support it, but argue that the details must be right. The problem for Labour is that all of the details they want changed would result in centralism.
Labour suggests support for the right to challenge, but they attempted to burden the legislation with unworkable, restrictive amendments. They claim they wish residents to have more involvement in community development, but Jack Dromey let slip that Labour would want to keep the Regional Spatial Strategies. Nick Raynsford, the minister who introduced the strategies, demolished their own claims by his irate and pretentious attitude towards Conservative MPs who welcomed their abolition. The “I know best” attitude, so ably demonstrated by most Labour politicians, was always apparent and was a damning commentary on their position.
This legislation will devolve power in a way that has never happened before. It goes far wider and deeper than many yet realise. It will take time for communities to understand and grasp the liberating opportunities offered. Under successive governments, we have experienced many years of centralisation; it will take time to change entire mindsets. At present, the approach is to look at what the rules say and what they permit. No longer will we need to look for a specific rule saying, yes you can do that. The new mind-set of local authorities will be one of action, unless there is a specific legal restriction.
Giving local authorities increased responsibility for their finances and local area means they should be more accountable to their residents. Currently, the automatic response is to blame Westminster for all wrongs, often with much justification. In future, this approach will be less convincing to the electorate. As people realise councillors have real power to change their community, I hope we will see better turnouts at local elections. Likewise, I hope councillors will be more aware they work on behalf of residents, rather than the council.
The most revolutionary parts of the Localism Bill are the devolution of power direct to local communities and residents. We can have a direct say and impact on planning, an ability to shape the future development of our neighbourhoods. The right to challenge, where local knowledge and expertise can be utilised, will transform the provision of services. The right to buy will allow communities to purchase and run local assets for the benefit of their community. The harsh glare of financial transparency will allow people to see how their council is spending their council tax. Labour MPs and many councillors of all political persuasions struggle with these issues with most. There is an assumption that devolution of power from one arm of government must be to another. Real devolution is about giving power to people not another bureaucracy.
It explains why Labour just does not “get” the concept of Big Society. It’s about empowering and trusting people. Once again, during the Localism Bill debate, they demonstrated that they do not trust people to take their own decisions, for the interests of their community. Conservatives do!