Leading Article: Does anybody really want local government any more?

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Indy Lifestyle Online
Imagine this. It is the year 2010 and a few thousand civil servants are arriving for work at UK Government Building 2 (local) in Victoria Street, London. From one building stuffed with computers they run all our public services: street cleaning, rubbish collection, schools, health, social services, public transport and planning. Compared with the messy, scattered town-hall system of the 20th century it is efficient and cheap. The services are of high quality and steadily improving.

What do the people think about this? The answer is that they are happy. True, there is a small, noisy faction organised around a group called Charter 2008, which argues that the system is desperately undemocratic, but for most citizens the only important test is whether the service is of the required standard.

What is wrong with this fantasy is that it is impossible. In reality no central body can comprehend and react to the needs of people and communities as diverse as those in central Newcastle, west Wales and Canterbury. Services would not be good without an effective channel of communication between citizen-consumer and service provider.

It is worth stating this blindingly obvious point because we seem to need to remind ourselves just why we need democracy at the local as well as the national and international level. Local government arose in Britain because tasks in the common interest - such as poor law relief and sewers - needed to be run. In the Seventies and Eighties, many of these tasks and almost all the funding for them was gathered into Whitehall. An associated phenomenon has been the quango-isation of many local and regional services - run by boards, mostly appointed by central government.

It is easy to rail against this centralising force but it also needs to be recognised that these things happened because we either wanted or were prepared to allow them. We were not sufficiently in love with our town and county halls to fight for their powers and their right to tax us. Indeed, some of them were so corrupt that we wanted to see them swept away. The business of reforming local government - undertaken by a series of top-level, top-down dignitaries - was equally unimpressive.

Meanwhile consumerism has politicised us, making each individual keen and able to exercise choice and power, if only in the market place. Accustomed to controlling how we spend the 60 per cent of our income that the state does not claim, we want a proper say in the fate of the other 40 per cent.

We also note that in the political market place, alternatives abound for different approaches to government, although the Thatcher-Major governments deny them all, with the exception of those judged suitable for the people of Ulster. Yesterday Alex Salmond, leader of the Scottish National Party, set out his dream of an independent state north of the border. Down in London, Labour detailed its plans to reform local government, promising "hit teams" to take over bad councils and new performance tests to ensure that local authorities do their jobs properly. This weekend at Plaid Cymru's annual party conference, Welsh nationalists will demand independence.

Devolution and revitalised local government is the answer that opposition politicians offer to voter disillusionment with central government. They look at Europe and see how Britain lags behind her partners. In Germany, the Bismarckian state was broken up in 1945. Spain, during its two post- Franco decades, has loosened Madrid's grip, particularly in Catalonia and the Basque country. Even France, where Napoleonic centralism was invented, devolved power during the Eighties.

There is much to said for the best of these proposals. Scottish voters undoubtedly want home rule: 81 per cent are in favour of Scottish parliament along the lines agreed by Labour and the Liberal Democrats. It would have legislative, executive and strictly limited tax-raising powers. Election would be by proportional representation.

But there must be a large question-mark against whether the rest of the constitutional shake-up actually achieves what is needed. In Wales, for example, devolution plans seem to have been designed as much to fulfil the political classes as to reflect public desires. Welsh Labour politicians want a slice of the power that their Scottish counterparts expect to enjoy. But they are not interested in reforms to the voting system that would challenge Labour's hegemony. No referendum has been offered on devolution. This is political cynicism.

Labour's plans for selective, indirect democratisation of regional administration also remain distant from the pressing concerns of voters, as do Liberal Democrat plans for a federal Britain, with fully-fledged regional Parliaments.

In short, for all our disillusionment with the British system of government, there is little in the alternatives offered capable of sparking our imagination.

There are many reasons for this. One is that we doubt any remoulding of familiar local authority structures will do the job. Also, however much we may click our knitting needles in calling for the head of the next quango boss, something tells us that at least with some quangos we now know who is taking responsibility. Hearing Derek Lewis, the much criticised head of the Prison Service, or one of the utility regulators interrogated on television reminds us that these organisations have in some ways exposed accountability rather than obscured it.

The lesson is that we need to be more imaginative in our search to reconnect voters with those who run public services. Portmanteau parliaments and local councils will only take us so far. We also need to try directly elected boards to oversee those who provide us with health care, policing and schools. In some countries, parental boards are directly responsible for hire and fire decisions about the people who teach their children.

This prospect is appalling to many politicians. It would do them out of their job as mediators of the public will: they want to remain a priestly caste in a protestant, individualistic age.Yet if they genuinely wish to engage people in local issues, they must bring decision-making closer to the public. Voters should feel almost as involved in choosing the street- cleaning service as they are in deciding which fridge or cooker they buy.

The problem with reformist parties is that they remain intent on reviving something they remember. It is time they imagined something new and experimented.

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