Throw out the bureaucrats and let the locals in

Britain has the fewest and largest basic units of local government of any liberal democracy. British councils are much bigger on average than in any other western country.

Not only are local authorities very big, but they have also been heavily bureaucratised. While other European countries expanded their welfare states using social welfare agencies, charities and housing associations, the British solution was to blow up the existing local government bureaucracies like balloons. This created absurdly giganticist town halls in the late Seventies, when Glasgow ran 170,000 council houses and Birmingham 120,000 homes from remote and centralised housing departments.

Historically, British town-hall bureaucracies have also been heavily professionalised and departmentalised, their boundary disputes creating impenetrable barriers for local citizens. Each department tends to answer to a committee of councillors set up on functional lines (education, housing, social services, highways), so that bureaucratic divisions have been reflected in political terms as well. In theory, responsibility is partitioned across multiple departments: in practice, no one is running the overall show.

Decentralisation efforts in the UK and Europe have been designed to bring down the scale of local government organisation, to make it accessible, to involve local residents more in decision-making, and above all to combat the fragmentation and obfuscation of local government bureaucracy and committees.

Changes in information technology are among the many things favouring decentralisation. Twenty years ago, to get a computerised rent collection system you had to stack up housing bureaucrats in atower-block office with a mainframe computer in the basement. Now officers with networked PCs can work on each local housing estate. Equally radical changes have taken place in budgeting, control systems and the management of service quality - along the lines of private-sector firms like McDonald's.

So decentralisation is far from a "loony left" idea. Liberal Democrat and "new Labour" councils are both keen on getting local government closer to the people. And the Audit Commission stresses the need for more management decentralisation.

In Sweden, the authorities who were most unhappy with the service from council staffs, and hence keenest on contracting out, are the ones who have adopted radical decentralisation. One pattern there (similar to that planned for Walsall) is for the local council to appoint people to a large number of budget-holding neighbourhood councils. It may spend its money with the local-authority service, or assign it to private contractors. Decentralisation is a key to making the purchaser/provider distinction work.

Elected councillors retain ultimate control of policy and budgets, but local residentshave a say in running their neighbourhoods. Yet if things go badly wrong at neighbourhood level, the council can put them right. This averts the problems encountered in Liberal Democrat Tower Hamlets in the early Nineties, where neighbourhoods were controlled by a very few local councillors - thus vulnerable to capture by the British National Party.

The British public likes the idea of decentralisation. In March 1994, a Channel 4 pollconducted by ICM and the London School of Economics' Public Policy Group asked whether neighbourhood councils were a good or a bad idea. People responded by a huge margin in favour, with 81 per cent saying it was a good idea and 66 per cent saying they would participate or make use of them. There was strong support also for local referendums, phone-in lines and more easily accessible information.

All of this means the decentralisation issue will not go away - whatever happens to Walsall's latest initiative.

Patrick Dunleavy

The author is Professor of Government at the London School of Economics and chairs the LSE Public Policy Group.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

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

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Senior Digital Marketing Consultant

£28000 - £45000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Senior Digital Marketing Cons...

Recruitment Genius: Assistant Stores Keeper

£16640 - £18500 per annum: Recruitment Genius: An Assistant Stores Keeper is r...

Recruitment Genius: Claims Administrator

£16000 - £18500 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an excellent opportunit...

Recruitment Genius: Software Developer - C# / ASP.NET / SQL

£17000 - £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Developer required to join a bu...

Day In a Page

'It was first time I had ever tasted chocolate. I kept a piece, and when Amsterdam was liberated, I gave it to the first Allied soldier I saw'

Bread from heaven

Dutch survivors thank RAF for World War II drop that saved millions
Britain will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power - Labour

How 'the Axe' helped Labour

UK will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power
Rare and exclusive video shows the horrific price paid by activists for challenging the rule of jihadist extremists in Syria

The price to be paid for challenging the rule of extremists

A revolution now 'consuming its own children'
Welcome to the world of Megagames

Welcome to the world of Megagames

300 players take part in Watch the Skies! board game in London
'Nymphomaniac' actress reveals what it was really like to star in one of the most explicit films ever

Charlotte Gainsbourg on 'Nymphomaniac'

Starring in one of the most explicit films ever
Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi: The Emirates' out-of-sight migrant workers helping to build the dream projects of its rulers

Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi

The Emirates' out-of-sight migrant workers helping to build the dream projects of its rulers
Vince Cable interview: Charging fees for employment tribunals was 'a very bad move'

Vince Cable exclusive interview

Charging fees for employment tribunals was 'a very bad move'
Iwan Rheon interview: Game of Thrones star returns to his Welsh roots to record debut album

Iwan Rheon is returning to his Welsh roots

Rheon is best known for his role as the Bastard of Bolton. It's gruelling playing a sadistic torturer, he tells Craig McLean, but it hasn't stopped him recording an album of Welsh psychedelia
Russell Brand's interview with Ed Miliband has got everyone talking about The Trews

Everyone is talking about The Trews

Russell Brand's 'true news' videos attract millions of viewers. But today's 'Milibrand' interview introduced his resolutely amateurish style to a whole new crowd
Morne Hardenberg interview: Cameraman for BBC's upcoming show Shark on filming the ocean's most dangerous predator

It's time for my close-up

Meet the man who films great whites for a living
Increasing numbers of homeless people in America keep their mobile phones on the streets

Homeless people keep mobile phones

A homeless person with a smartphone is a common sight in the US. And that's creating a network where the 'hobo' community can share information - and fight stigma - like never before
'Queer saint' Peter Watson left his mark on British culture by bankrolling artworld giants

'Queer saint' who bankrolled artworld giants

British culture owes a huge debt to Peter Watson, says Michael Prodger
Pushkin Prizes: Unusual exchange programme aims to bring countries together through culture

Pushkin Prizes brings countries together

Ten Scottish schoolchildren and their Russian peers attended a creative writing workshop in the Highlands this week
14 best kids' hoodies

14 best kids' hoodies

Don't get caught out by that wind on the beach. Zip them up in a lightweight top to see them through summer to autumn
Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi: The acceptable face of the Emirates

The acceptable face of the Emirates

Has Abu Dhabi found a way to blend petrodollars with principles, asks Robert Fisk