Don't try this at home

The Government is backing a project to bolster councils in Eastern Europe
ONE OF Thomas Hardy's lesser-known books is called Life's Little Ironies, about odd coincidences in Wessex. But the title would be an effective summary of the Government's attitude to local authorities.

Since 1979, it has been busy stripping councils of their powers. Yet the Foreign Office funds British academics to advise municipalities in the former Soviet bloc on how to expand their roles, as a bulwark against over-centralist governments.

The Institute of Local Government at Birmingham University has been involved for three years in advising East European municipalities. Backed by the Foreign Office's British Know-How Fund, it started with Poland and now also supports the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Hungary, Romania, Russia, Moldava and the Ukraine.

Michael Clarke, head of the school of public policy at Birmingham University and ex chief executive of the Local Government Management Board, says: "We are working with officials and elected politicians to convert a system of local administration into local government. There is some way to go, but there is a determination to use local government to build something that will prevent a centralised state, with the apparatchiks taking control. It is a viable opportunity for democracy."

There is a recognition in both Britain and the assisted states that it is not appropriate simply to copy the UK model. This would be true as a matter of principle, regardless of the feelings aroused by stripping British councils of their powers. While education is being removed from the control of our local authorities, it is being handed over to municipalities in Poland.

Pawel Swianiewicz is the field officer for the Know-How Fund in Poland. He says: "The idea of the programme is not to replicate British solutions in Poland, but to use the British experience, learning from both the good and the bad. Unlike some other programmes, it doesn't try to send experts with a limited knowledge of local conditions, who spend their time in the most expensive hotels in Warsaw and then produce solutions. My opinion of academic standards in Britain is very high, having studied at a British university."

A central part of the programme is to set up demonstration projects in 12 municipalities. Manuals are being produced on how to run councils, including best practice advice and case studies. Priorities include raising management standards, so the transfer of primary schools to the municipalities occurs efficiently, and examining the effectiveness of housing management.

Professor Clarke says that the experience has a two-way benefit, not least by placing difficulties here in perspective: "The enormous problems they face make ours seem small. They have a determination to put a working system into place. It is an enormous task to get the structures and processes into place, and getting people to handle them."

Involving ordinary citizens in designing a local government structure has been one of the objectives of the programme, but discussion can be seen as a block on progress.

Professor Clarke says: "People are more interested in services than in debate. The big difficulty is getting people to think of what they want, and not imposing our approach. In Poland the government is flexible, and the Know-How Fund tries not to impose solutions."

Council officials here might be forgiven for wishing that Professor Clarke and his colleagues could now have similar success with the Government. Many of them would dearly love to have more powers to roll back centralisation.