Leading article: Councils need more power, and more accountability

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Not all politics is local. There is such a thing as national politics, just as there has always been such a thing as society. But quite a lot of politics is local. And, quite suddenly, it seems that it is over power at the grass roots that the next big political battles will be fought. This may not, of course, be unconnected with the imminence of local council elections, when control of high-profile London councils will be up for grabs. But the skirmishing is not limited to London. Agitation about above-inflation rises in council tax is breaking out all over, as local and national officials try to pass the blame. That these will be the first elections to test Labour's third-term standing with the voters against the appeal of David Cameron and his New Conservatives has given the season an additional frisson.

All of which helps to explain why yesterday's speech by David Miliband, the minister of Communities and Local Government, apostle for New Labour and - possibly - a prime minister in waiting, drew so much comment from rival parties afterwards. Mr Miliband's big idea, in advance of a White Paper to be published later this year, is what he calls a "double devolution": from Whitehall to local town halls, and from the town hall to citizens and local communities. The intention is not just to bring power closer to ordinary people but to make it easier for local authorities and individuals to take advantage of small-scale voluntary initiatives.

The two words that Mr Miliband seemed to be searching for, but did not find, might be proximity and flexibility. And, if this is what he and the Government are after, that would be to the good. We are all for devolving power as far down into the grass roots as possible, and we suspect a great many other people are, too.

There is just one hitch here. Bringing services, such as the police, carers, refuse collection, youth clubs and the rest closer to those who need them, is what efficient local government should be about. For a decade or more, however, we have seen local services (and the funds to support them) progressively drawn back under a central government umbrella, by dint of additional rules and regulations or schemes for regional consolidation. This process might have been in train when Labour came to office, but it has only accelerated since.

The result is that local councils across the country are hamstrung in much of what they do by central government prescription. From policing to the allocation of social housing, their room for manoeuvre is circumscribed. Even allowing for institutional special pleading, the way that councils are funded - with 75 per cent of their income coming from central government, according to priorities decided in Whitehall - acts as a limitation on their freedom. Yet it is they who are invariably blamed when residents feel that services are not up to scratch.

If the Government is now serious about bridging the "gap" between power and people, it must first clarify the respective duties of central and local government, which have become hopelessly muddled as a result of mixed financing and the overlapping of agencies and quangos. It should then loosen its hold on councils so that they are truly accountable to the residents for the services that are their, local, responsibility.

The Government may, as Mr Miliband did yesterday, express a preference for further devolution of power to neighbourhoods and individuals, and often this will make sense - so long as the necessary information is made easily accessible to all. In the minister's enthusiasm for "double-devolution", however, it was possible to discern a fear that more accountable local power might, in time, shift some power (and money) away from the centre. We see absolutely nothing wrong with this.