Steve Richards: The contradictions of Tory localism

Osborne wants to cap local government pay whilst saying he wants to give power away

Share
Related Topics

One of the most fashionable terms in politics is "localism". The word trips off the tongues of political leaders with the same regularity as "modernise" and "change". All three terms are conveniently vague and yet convey a sense of forward-looking radicalism that is often a substitute for clarity. Although still a poor navigator towards detailed policy, "localism" is the most precise of the three terms. At least it points in a specific direction. There is no getting away from it. An advocate must support a transfer of powers from the centre to local bodies.

The Conservatives have made much of this theme under the leadership of David Cameron. In theory they want to make "big government" much smaller and allow "localism" to flourish in various forms. In some ways it is their defining idea. Aides of Cameron and George Osborne enthuse about a variety of local initiatives from the election of mayors to making councils more transparent, not least through the use of the internet. Robust local councils, held to account by voters, are not the party's only route towards "localism", but they are a tangible one. As I wrote last week I am less clear what the other agencies would be to bind together "society" in the face of Cameron's increasingly explicit hostility towards the state.

The problem with localism is that governments like to keep hold of the levers even if in theory they want to let go. As an added twist quite often the case for holding on to a lever or two is compelling. A section in George Osborne's speech to the Conservative conference captured unintentionally the conflicting strands in the current thinking of the Conservative leadership. During one of the most powerful passages the Shadow Chancellor declared in relation to the public sector:

"The excessive salaries at the top have to go. In the current climate, anyone who wishes to pay a public servant more than the Prime Minister will have to put it before the Chancellor. I am not expecting a long queue."

By declaring that he was not anticipating a long queue of affluent figures outside his door Osborne announced in effect a voluntary incomes policy for high earners in the public sector. Harold Wilson tried the occasional voluntary pay policy and it soon became statutory. Similarly I suspect Osborne will have to act if he wants the excessive salaries addressed. There will be few volunteering to halve their salaries or more to earn the same as the Prime Minister.

But the wider significance is in the dynamic he envisaged. He did not say that in these straitened times it is up to local authorities to justify the high pay of their executives to their local electorates. Instead he made clear that they need to satisfy Osborne if he is in the Treasury and if they do not he will act. Such a move would be an act of centralisation, undermining localism, as was Osborne's proposal a year before to freeze council tax.

In my view Osborne's proposal on pay is laudable, but I am an expedient localist and not an evangelical. Should it be up to him to decide whether or not a council should act in specific ways if the Conservatives' big idea is to give power away? Does his pay policy mean the so-called "free schools" the Conservatives plan to introduce will not be free to appoint a dynamic head for half-a-million if they wanted to do so?

I am sure David Cameron agrees fully with Osborne that the Treasury must keep a grip on pay across the board. I am equally certain Osborne agrees wholeheartedly with Cameron's reform agenda in which the centre gives power away. It is very much his agenda too. But in that small, seemingly straightforward passage in Osborne's speech, there is the scope for a thousand rows between the two of them and messy policy outcomes.

Contrary to mythology the raging disputes between Tony Blair and Gordon Brown were not all about personal ambition, although that played a big part. Nor were the tensions entirely the result of ideological differences. Quite a lot of it came down to Blair's desire to give some power away from the centre and Brown's wariness from his Treasury perspective about how this experiment would be paid for and who was keeping track of where the money was being spent. Somehow this was perceived widely as "reform" versus "anti reform" but it was a lot more complicated than that.

When he was Chancellor, Brown told me at the height of the internal battles that he was not against "choice". He joked that he once saw a poster of a candidate in a US election with the slogan "Choose Freedom", as if anyone would stand as a candidate against "freedom". He felt the same about "choice". It was an easy slogan, but he worried about how the surplus of places in schools and hospitals to make choice real would be financed and whether voters would tolerate half-empty wards and classrooms that a surplus implied. He was also concerned about the consequences of giving a hospital the powers to go bust at a point when he was putting up taxes to pay supposedly for improvements in the NHS.

From the comfort of opposition Cameron and Osborne are genuinely united in their contradictory tunes. But it is in the thorny area of how a government gives powers away that they will have disputes, simply because there are no easy answers. Probably they will have disputes with themselves as well as with each other. How does central government give away powers when it is responsible for raising most of the money spent by local providers?

Local government was decimated in the 1980s and has not fully recovered. It would be a big risk especially in the midst of spending cuts to increase their powers when they are unused to exerting them. Before very long there would be examples of reckless waste. When the voluntary sector is asked to do more it will want additional money from government, but will the Treasury be entirely relaxed about handing it out with few strings attached?

As far as the Conservative leadership is concerned the questions are resolved in favour of the parents, the local authorities, the voluntary sector and the rest. But they are resolved in theory and never will be in the complex reality as Osborne demonstrates by summoning overpaid executives from around the land to his door in order to cut their pay.

s.richards@independent.co.uk

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

VB.Net Developer - £40k - Surrey - WANTED ASAP

£35000 - £40000 per annum + competitive: Progressive Recruitment: .Mid Level V...

Digitakl Business Analyst, Slough

£40000 - £45000 per annum + Competitive Benefits: Progressive Recruitment: Dig...

Mechanical Estimator: Nuclear Energy - Sellafield

£40000 - £50000 per annum + Car, Medical, Fuel + More!: Progressive Recruitmen...

Dynamics NAV Techno-Functional Consultant

£50000 - £60000 per annum + benefits: Progressive Recruitment: An absolutely o...

Day In a Page

Read Next
'Our media are suffering a new experience: not fear of being called anti-Semitic'  

Dress the Gaza situation up all you like, but the truth hurts

Robert Fisk
David Cameron (pictured) can't steal back my party's vote that easily, says Nigel Farage  

Cameron’s benefits pledge is designed to lure back Ukip voters. He’ll have to try harder

Nigel Farage
Dress the Gaza situation up all you like, but the truth hurts

Robert Fisk on Gaza conflict

Dress the situation up all you like, but the truth hurts
Save the tiger: Tiger, tiger burning less brightly as numbers plummet

Tiger, tiger burning less brightly

When William Blake wrote his famous poem there were probably more than 100,000 tigers in the wild. These days they probably number around 3,200
A tale of two presidents: George W Bush downs his paintbrush to pen father’s life story

A tale of two presidents

George W Bush downs his paintbrush to pen father’s life story
Save the tiger: The day America’s love of backyard tigers led to a horrific bloodbath

The day America’s love of backyard tigers led to a horrific bloodbath

With only six per cent of the US population of these amazing big cats held in zoos, the Zanesville incident in 2011 was inevitable
Samuel Beckett's biographer reveals secrets of the writer's time as a French Resistance spy

How Samuel Beckett became a French Resistance spy

As this year's Samuel Beckett festival opens in Enniskillen, James Knowlson, recalls how the Irish writer risked his life for liberty and narrowly escaped capture by the Gestapo
We will remember them: relatives still honour those who fought in the Great War

We will remember them

Relatives still honour those who fought in the Great War
Star Wars Episode VII is being shot on film - and now Kodak is launching a last-ditch bid to keep celluloid alive

Kodak's last-ditch bid to keep celluloid alive

Director J J Abrams and a few digital refuseniks shoot movies on film. Simon Usborne wonders what the fuss is about
Once stilted and melodramatic, Hollywood is giving acting in video games a makeover

Acting in video games gets a makeover

David Crookes meets two of the genre's most popular voices
Could our smartphones soon be diagnosing diseases via Health Kit and Google Fit?

Could smartphones soon be diagnosing diseases?

Health Kit and Google Fit have been described as "the beginning of a health revolution"
Ryanair has turned on the 'charm offensive' but can we learn to love the cut-price carrier again?

Can we learn to love Ryanair again?

Four recent travellers give their verdicts on the carrier's improved customer service
Billionaire founder of Spanx launches range of jeans that offers

Spanx launches range of jeans

The jeans come in two styles, multiple cuts and three washes and will go on sale in the UK in October
10 best over-ear headphones

Aural pleasure: 10 best over-ear headphones

Listen to your favourite tracks with this selection, offering everything from lambskin earmuffs to stainless steel
Commonwealth Games 2014: David Millar ready to serve up gold for his beloved Scotland in the end

Commonwealth Games

David Millar ready to serve up gold for his beloved Scotland in the end
UCI Mountain Bike World Cup 2014: Downhill all the way to the top for the Atherton siblings

UCI Mountain Bike World Cup

Downhill all the way to the top for the Atherton siblings
Save the tiger: The animals bred for bones on China’s tiger farms

The animals bred for bones on China’s tiger farms

The big cats kept in captivity to perform for paying audiences and then, when dead, their bodies used to fortify wine