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.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Arts and Entertainment
Ben Stiller as Derek Zoolander in the leaked trailer for Zoolander 2
film
Sport
footballArsenal take the Community Shield thanks to a sensational strike from Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain
Arts and Entertainment
Gemma Chan as synth Anita in Humans
film
News
Keeping it friendly: Tom Cruise on ‘The Daily Show’ with Jon Stewart
people
Arts and Entertainment
Ensemble cast: Jamie McCartney with ‘The Great Wall of Vagina’
artBritish artist Jamie McCartney explains a work that is designed to put women's minds at rest
News
Republican Presidential Candidate Donald Trump
people
ebooks
ebooksAn introduction to the ground rules of British democracy
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
SPONSORED FEATURES
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs Money & Business

Recruitment Genius: DBA Developer - SQL Server

£30000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an exciting opportunity...

Recruitment Genius: Customer Service Administrator

£13000 - £15000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Are you passionate about custom...

Recruitment Genius: Dialler Administrator

£22000 - £25000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Main purpose: Under the directi...

Ashdown Group: Contracts Manager - City of London

£35000 - £37000 per annum + benefits : Ashdown Group: Contracts Manager - City...

Day In a Page

Turkey-Kurdish conflict: Obama's deal with Ankara is a betrayal of Syrian Kurds and may not even weaken Isis

US betrayal of old ally brings limited reward

Since the accord, the Turks have only waged war on Kurds while no US bomber has used Incirlik airbase, says Patrick Cockburn
VIPs gather for opening of second Suez Canal - but doubts linger over security

'A gift from Egypt to the rest of the world'

VIPs gather for opening of second Suez Canal - but is it really needed?
Jeremy Corbyn dresses abysmally. That's a great thing because it's genuine

Jeremy Corbyn dresses abysmally. That's a great thing because it's genuine

Fashion editor, Alexander Fury, applauds a man who clearly has more important things on his mind
The male menopause and intimations of mortality

Aches, pains and an inkling of mortality

So the male menopause is real, they say, but what would the Victorians, 'old' at 30, think of that, asks DJ Taylor
Man Booker Prize 2015: Anna Smaill - How can I possibly be on the list with these writers I have idolised?

'How can I possibly be on the list with these writers I have idolised?'

Man Booker Prize nominee Anna Smaill on the rise of Kiwi lit
Bettany Hughes interview: The historian on how Socrates would have solved Greece's problems

Bettany Hughes interview

The historian on how Socrates would have solved Greece's problems
Art of the state: Pyongyang propaganda posters to be exhibited in China

Art of the state

Pyongyang propaganda posters to be exhibited in China
Mildreds and Vanilla Black have given vegetarian food a makeover in new cookbooks

Vegetarian food gets a makeover

Long-time vegetarian Holly Williams tries to recreate some of the inventive recipes in Mildreds and Vanilla Black's new cookbooks
The haunting of Shirley Jackson: Was the gothic author's life really as bleak as her fiction?

The haunting of Shirley Jackson

Was the gothic author's life really as bleak as her fiction?
Bill Granger recipes: Heading off on holiday? Try out our chef's seaside-inspired dishes...

Bill Granger's seaside-inspired recipes

These dishes are so easy to make, our chef is almost embarrassed to call them recipes
Ashes 2015: Tourists are limp, leaderless and distinctly UnAustralian

Tourists are limp, leaderless and distinctly UnAustralian

A woefully out-of-form Michael Clarke embodies his team's fragile Ashes campaign, says Michael Calvin
Blairites be warned, this could be the moment Labour turns into Syriza

Andrew Grice: Inside Westminster

Blairites be warned, this could be the moment Labour turns into Syriza
HMS Victory: The mystery of Britain's worst naval disaster is finally solved - 271 years later

The mystery of Britain's worst naval disaster is finally solved - 271 years later

Exclusive: David Keys reveals the research that finally explains why HMS Victory went down with the loss of 1,100 lives
Survivors of the Nagasaki atomic bomb attack: Japan must not abandon its post-war pacifism

'I saw people so injured you couldn't tell if they were dead or alive'

Nagasaki survivors on why Japan must not abandon its post-war pacifism
Jon Stewart: The voice of Democrats who felt Obama had failed to deliver on his 'Yes We Can' slogan, and the voter he tried hardest to keep onside

The voter Obama tried hardest to keep onside

Outgoing The Daily Show host, Jon Stewart, became the voice of Democrats who felt the President had failed to deliver on his ‘Yes We Can’ slogan. Tim Walker charts the ups and downs of their 10-year relationship on screen