Terence Blacker: Local democracy is fine (if you do as you're told)

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The Independent Online

For as long as politics and cynicism have co-existed, the excuse of the apathetic non-voter has remained unchanged. Politicians? They're all the same, aren't they? Almost always, the line is demonstrably false, but in one area at least it is true. Big-time politicians like to make warm, supportive noises about local democracy but, when a council puts central government on the spot, their attitude is quickly revealed to be bogus.

Everyone likes local neighbourhoods, as long as they behave themselves. When Gordon Brown, on becoming Prime Minister, argued that "our participatory democracy is too weak at local level, so we have to rise to the new challenge of engagement," he was echoing what the Leader of the Opposition had said a few months previously. Local democracy, according to David Cameron, is "an idea whose time has come". Joining the chorus, Vince Cable has recently urged his party to move to "a more locally-based way of running the country".

If these pronouncements had been halfway honest, the qualifying phrase "so long as that locally-based way of running the country coincides with that of central government" might have been added. Within weeks of becoming PM, for example, Brown was introducing a Bill that would substantially reduce the power of local communities when it comes to major planning applications.

But the most perfect example of hypocrisy in this fasionable policy area comes from the UK's newest governing body, the Scottish National Party. In the past, the SNP leader Alex Salmond has been as localist as any politician he even donated his salary as First Minister to local causes but the complex business of governing rather than opposing has revealed his true position.

Last week, the Aberdeenshire planning committee bravely and correctly voted against a monstrous application by the American billionaire Donald Trump which would turn a 1,400-acre stretch of unspoilt coastline into a housing development and one of the biggest golfing complexes in the world. The committee decided that the rare sand-dune habitat, described by a creepy-sounding henchman of Trump's as "a menace sand that blew in off the beach", was too important to be sacrificed to the greed of a developer.

The new ruling party in Scotland quickly proved that no dog snarls quite like an underdog that suddenly finds itself on top. Alex Salmond was said to be "furious" about the decision. One of his senior SNP colleagues referred to those who put the countryside before consumerism as "yahoos". In the local press, the decision was reported under the inflammatory headline "You traitors".

Here is the true face of localism, and more and more of it will be seen throughout the UK over the coming months. In the face of the rush for growth, a brutal and uncompromising alliance quickly develops between those who want to make money and the politicians who want to win votes by encouraging what is often fraudulently presented as an opportunity for jobs, wealth, regeneration. The media, following the money, forget their own pious editorials about conservation and scramble on to the bandwagon.

The beleaguered landscape and the communities that are part of it find themselves at the mercy of tycoons and politicians. Their only remaining hope lies in the determination and courage of the local people abused and vilified as yahoos because they refuse to worship at the shrine of development. Brown, Cameron, Cable and Salmond are right: local democracy is an idea whose time has come. It must not be bullied into submission on the very issues that affect communities and their future most deeply.

Dogged by good fortune

In an act of posthumous unkindness, the American heiress Leona Helmsley left $12m to her dog Trouble when she died in August. The Helmsley executors have been trying to burn through the money as quickly as possible, planning to spend $300,000 a year on grooming and food, but Trouble's delicate stomach has rebelled against her rich diet. Then there's a small problem with potential kidnappers. Trouble is currently in hiding.

What a great story this would be, from living with "the Queen of Mean", to life on the run after her death. All Trouble needs now is a decent literary agent and a well-paid ghostwriter. There's more money in that dog the $12m could be just the start.

* So much for the Turner Prize being on the dangerous edge of things. If any award this year, taken from any artistic discipline, has more comprehensively reflected solid establishment values than Mark Wallinger's installation State Britain, it would be a surprise.

Wallinger's recreation in the Tate of Brian Haw's one-man protest in Parliament Square against the Iraq war has been praised on various levels. The placards, graffiti, hand-written messages and photographs are very true to the originals, apparently. By exhibiting within a kilometre of Parliament, it tellingly satirises the legislation which caused Haw to dismantle his protest. Unlike much modern art, it engages with political issues and expresses a point of view.

But if, as has been claimed, State Britain landed the 25,000 award because it took those who saw it out of their comfort zone, then it is a bewildering decision. An installation that questioned the easy liberal consensus over Iraq might just have done that but then it would never have been exhibited in the first place.

terblacker@aol.com

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