Steve Richards: If ministers don't want the blame for every fault, they need to revive local responsibility

Why is the appointment of a teacher in Norwich the responsibility of the Education Secretary?
Click to follow

Successive governments stumble almost fatally in their poorly choreographed dance with local authorities. They fear the resurrection of local democracy. Yet as they pull more strings from the centre, prime ministers and their ministers find themselves in politically dangerous or absurd situations.

Consider the themes of recent days. Why is the Education Secretary, Ruth Kelly, responsible for the appointment of a teacher in Norwich? Are there no local bodies capable of making a decision on the wisdom and legal implications of recruiting a sex offender? Such is the degree of micromanagement from the Department for Education, it will not be long before Ms Kelly and her fellow ministers are teaching in the schools themselves.

If this sounds silly, consider Tony Blair's overwhelming prime ministerial priority this week. He headed for a housing estate in Swindon to assist in removing graffiti from the walls. The image of Mr Blair working away sweatily in Swindon echoed the one of Margaret Thatcher picking up litter frenziedly in Westminster. British prime ministers act as mighty presidents one moment, committing Britain to fight wars without consultation. The next moment, they are on an estate helping to tidy up.

While this might be humbling, there is something wrong with a constitution that makes a prime minister an unaccountable war leader and a housing estate cleaner simultaneously. Whatever the familiar controversies relating to the former role, surely the latter is suited more to a dynamic and robustly accountable local leader.

Local government is a dry subject that becomes drier as its powers diminish. Yet its decline is the key to explaining what has gone wrong in the delivery of services from anti-crime measures to the performance of schools. Its revival would also be the route to improved delivery and a less unpredictably frenzied life for prime ministers and ministers at the centre.

There is much at stake in this dysfunctional relationship. Margaret Thatcher was killed off partly because of the poll tax, her attempt to make councils more efficient and accountable in their newly diminished roles. The current Government's schools White Paper is based partly on an implicit mistrust of local education authorities. The Government seeks to transfer more powers to the centre, continuing the trend that means it is the Education Secretary in Whitehall who decides who can teach in a school in Norwich.

The urgency of the tone in the schools White Paper is justified. Too many schools under-perform. Privately, some of the more perceptive Labour MPs are scathing about the complacency of many local education authorities. But the long-term solution should be the creation of innovative local education authorities that are not so weak and complacent.

Similarly, Mr Blair is right to express his alarm at antisocial behaviour. It is easy to sneer at the prime ministerial initiatives announced this week as part of his "respect agenda". Most of the sneering has come from the safety of a newsroom or the columnist's study. As Mr Blair put it, he must offer more to terrified voters than urging patience while the Government addresses the fundamental causes of crime.

If he had not acted, the same newspapers would complain about the disconnection between politicians and the concerns of voters. My concern is different. If local authorities were more vibrant and powerful, they would be incomparably better placed to take command. They would also get the blame when policies failed. In a more sensible arrangement, a well-known, robustly accountable council leader would be cleaning graffiti off a wall in Swindon rather than the Prime Minister.

We have been here many times before. In the late 1980s, I recall accompanying the Environment Secretary Nicholas Ridley to a rundown housing estate on the outskirts of Wolverhampton. The former council estate had become a Housing Action Trust, accountable to Mr Ridley rather than the badly run local authority. Deploying Blairite hyperbole, Mr Ridley described his initiative as a "housing revolution".

The aristocratic cabinet minister spent part of his visit painting the walls on one of the homes on the former council estate. He was in charge and would therefore do some of the decorating. Briefly the policy worked. Mr Ridley was an accomplished decorator. The previously derelict housing estate sparkled, but soon central government, with its vast range of challenges and demands, lost interest. Most of the time, Mr Ridley was a long way from Wolverhampton.

The current schools White Paper follows a similar pattern. It transfers powers to ministers who will devolve responsibilities to regulators and adjudicators who are accountable to Whitehall. This is also the case with city academies, an innovation that is entirely separate from the proposals in the White Paper. It is wrong to assert that the academies are free standing, able to do what they like. But their relationship is with the Department for Education and that is where the constraints are applied.

The centralisation of England began in the early 1980s. Mrs Thatcher concluded local authorities were performing poorly. She took away their powers and acquired them for herself or gave them to the private sector, only to discover the councils performed even more poorly. She responded by taking more powers away from them. This is a hardsequence to break. Unsurprisingly in 1997 a party that had won power for the first time in 18 years was disinclined to risk giving a lot of it away to weak local authorities.

But it is riskier still to pursue relentless centralisation. At some point, a bold government must move in the opposite direction. It will not be easy. There will be cock-ups at a local level, and central government will get the blame. People will be let down as local bodies adjust to their new powers. But at least those who are let down would be able to respond by voting out the local council.

How could this be brought about effectively? Locally elected mayors across the country, proportional representation in local elections, compulsory voting in local elections, anything to revive and make more efficient locally elected and accountable bodies.

If this sounds impractical, do not forget what happens now. An Education Secretary is being unfairly blamed and her Whitehall department is in turmoil over the appointment of a teacher in Norwich. Overworked prime ministers remove graffiti in Swindon and clear up litter in Westminster. Environment secretaries redecorate a council flat in Wolverhampton. There is reform upon reform from the centre and ministers are replaced when the reforms do not work.

Reviving local democracy will be a nightmare during the transitional phase, but a piece of cake compared with the centralising experiment of the past two decades.