David Cameron has set out his vision for the public services today in a speech to a conference sponsored by The Guardian.  He emphasised three themes for Conservative policy towards schools and hospitals:

  1. More responsibility for professionals;
  2. More localisation of power;
  3. A gradual approach to reform to that changes are given the opportunity to succeed.

The speech began with a warm tribute to the NHS and its cross-party origins:

"The NHS is a truly non-party institution. It was inspired by a Liberal – William Beveridge – planned by a Conservative – Henry Willink – and introduced by a Labour minister, Nye Bevan.  Of course the three parties, then and now, have disagreements about how the NHS should be organised.  But we all share an absolute belief in its aims and values. It is one of the institutions – like the monarchy or the BBC – which binds us together as a nation. And the same goes for all our great public services."

The key section of the Conservative leader’s speech promised a Disraelian pace of public service reform:

"In 1867, after he had secured the passage of the Reform Bill enfranchising working class voters for the first time, Benjamin Disraeli said this: "In a progressive country, change is constant; and the great question is, not whether you should resist change which is inevitable, but whether that change should be carried out in deference to the manners, the customs, the laws and the traditions of the people, or in deference to abstract principles and arbitrary and general doctrines."  That is the spirit in which I approach the reform of the public services. I take inspiration from an earlier phase of reform – the changes to trade union law in the 1980s. Big bang reform was a failure. One-step-at-a-time trade union reform was a great success. Ferdinand Mount has called this the "long runway approach to political change", and the alternative "vertical take off followed by crash landing"."

The Guardian has interpreted this section of the speech as an attempt to "woo" public sector workers demoralised by constant change and reform.

David Cameron undertook to keep a number of Labour innovations – including Foundation Hospitals (but to increase their number), City Academies and trust schools (but to extend their freedoms), the  Decent Homes Initiative and the purchaser-provider split in penal policy.

The party’s overall approach is summarised in this section:

"I want to briefly sketch the outline of an alternative design.  This alternative is – if I may borrow from the socialist phrase-book – the New Jerusalem: the liberal-conservative ideal.  It involves a diversity of independent, locally accountable institutions, providing public services according to their own ideas of what works and their own experience of what their users want.  It involves a government which acts as a regulator of services, not a monopoly provider – monitoring service standards on behalf of the public, but not always delivering them.  As George Osborne has said, it involves a Treasury which acts as a department for value for money, rather than trying to run every department and public agency from the centre.

It involves, most of all, individuals and families who are empowered with choice.  Pluralism on the supply side is matched with freedom on the demand side.  The public become, not the passive recipients of state services, but the active agents of their own life.

They are trusted to make the right choices for themselves and their families. They become doers, not the done-for.  Responsible, engaged, informed – in a word, adult.   And out of this messy creativity, this multitude of personal choices, comes what we all – left, right and non-aligned – want for our country.  Great public services for all. Decent local schools, which everyone, rich and poor, Muslim and Christian, wants to send their children too.

Housing which leads the world in beauty, in environmentalism, in comfort. Prisons which work, not just at keeping criminals off the streets, but at returning them to the streets reformed and healthy and employable. Local hospitals which are the envy of the world – but not the envy of the neighbouring town, because all hospitals in Britain reach the highest standards.  And this is the great paradox – out of freedom, comes equality. Those who oppose diversity argue that it will lead to inequalities. Yet surely we must accept that the attempt to eliminate inequality by central planning has failed. True equality is not the formal and oppressive standardisation of Fordism, but the natural balancing-out that comes from diversity."

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