Politicians want to lose their reputations as control freaks. All three major political parties claim to be in favour of localisation, the idea of handing power back to local communities pioneered by the Liberal Democrats. They are right to favour the idea, and not just because the expenses scandal has so damaged the reputation of Westminster. But the question of local government pay, highlighted by the Tories today, underlines the dilemmas they face on this issue.
When the Conservative Party chairman, Eric Pickles, tells this newspaper that a future Tory government intends to put a stop to council leaders "being paid like football managers", he is in danger of sounding as if he wants to have his cake and eat it. It may look like sound strategy to echo a populist outcry over the growing number of council leaders being paid more than £200,000 a year – well in excess of the salary of the Prime Minister – but Tories need to be mindful of the dangers of sounding inconsistent.
Devolution of power from the centre to local level is a flagship policy of David Cameron's Tories – and a very welcome one, because this country has become far too centralised. It would be one thing if this vastly expanded top-down, target-driven civil service consistently delivered the goods. However, concentration of power in the centre in Britain has done nothing of the sort, too often only serving to increase bureaucratic inertia and stifle innovation. A series of scandals over lost data and bungled computerisation have demonstrated that "the man from Whitehall" does not always know best. Meanwhile, the steady hoovering up of all authority towards the centre has done real damage to democracy, undermining civic pride and weakening interest in local elections.
But if the Conservatives want to be taken seriously on localism, they need to walk the walk. Mr Pickles is giving in to the old reflex to micro-manage when he talks about the Government setting limits on the earnings of council officials. If his party wants to redistribute power, local authority pay levels should not be an issue on which he or his colleagues decide. It should be up to local authorities to determine the pay scales of its employees, and then they should be held accountable by their communities.
One of the problems concerning local executive pay was that voters simply did not have much information about it until recently. They did not know what their authorities were paying their staff because the authorities' annual accounts were studiedly vague on the question. But that particular issue was dealt with in February, since when the Government has obliged local authorities to disclose the salaries, bonuses and pensions they are paying their officers. As a result, taxpayers in Newham, in east London, in Suffolk County Council and Kingston-upon-Hull can now decide for themselves whether they want their chief executives remunerated to the tune of £200,000-plus.
Under Margaret Thatcher, the Tories stripped power from local authorities. Now they say they seek to undo that particular part of the Thatcher legacy. They are not alone, with their rivals also reciting the mantra of localism. But that means national politicians must stop interfering in every local decision. Only then will power truly revert to local level – and among the beneficiaries could be national politicians, if they can convince the electorate that they have neither the power nor the responsibility over everything that goes on in the country. This is a truly revolutionary step that could, ultimately, lead to a far more grown-up political discourse.