Leading article: Dangers lie in David Cameron's hazy vision of social regeneration

Share
Related Topics

The week began with a speech from David Cameron on the "Big Society", a variety of initiatives designed to empower local communities. And yesterday there came an announcement of plans to strip councils of their control of local planning.

The contours of the Government's vision are steadily coming into focus. It is clear that local authorities are regarded as an obstacle, rather than a facilitator of local empowerment. The policy of the Education Secretary, Michael Gove, is designed to break the control of local education authorities over individual schools. A freeze has been imposed on council tax, which will reduce the financial autonomy of town halls. And the proposed abolition of Primary Care Trusts, with the transfer of their commissioning role to smaller consortia of GPs, will also contribute to the diminishment of the powers of local officials. What the Conservatives in the Government want is for power to be pushed down to the level of individual schools, villages, GP surgeries.

This is an experiment whose consequences are deeply uncertain. Ministers are right to suggest that there are potential benefits from this radical devolution of power. The hollowing out of rural communities as their housing stock is bought up by wealthy second-home owners is a serious problem. Allowing villagers to decide for themselves whether more social housing should be built could break the nimbyism that often thwarts rural construction. It is also true that too many schools are underperforming and that there is a powerful case for allowing these institutions greater control over their budgets.

The problem comes in the externalities that arise from permitting small communities to take these decisions. In the case of rural "right to build", there is a risk, as the Campaign to Protect Rural England has stressed, of compromising the green belt. In the education reforms, the danger is the potential negative effect on less popular schools in an area.

Subsidiarity – the idea that decisions should be made at the lowest possible level – is a perfectly good principle, but it is important to recognise that there are some services that can practically be delivered only by local councils. Waste collection is a good example. The Communities Secretary, Eric Pickles, has been demanding that councils pick up refuse once a week. But councils have been moving to fortnightly collections because of cost pressures. And these pressures are only going to increase as the Government cuts deep into the local government budget. The Big Society has little to offer here.

The biggest externality is the weakening of traditional forms of local democracy. "Right to build" will see planning decisions made through mini-referendums, rather than elected councillors. But who will be held accountable if those decisions turn out to have been unwise? Meanwhile, the education reforms could end up strengthening the centre by creating schools whose only supervision comes from the Education Department.

The Government has been very good at revolutionary thinking. And some of it is worthwhile. But ministers have been woeful at joining the dots, failing to think through difficult questions of safeguards and accountability. Those are less interesting matters for sure, but they could ultimately decide whether or not Mr Cameron's big idea actually succeeds.

React Now

Latest stories from i100
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Project Manager (infrastructure, upgrades, rollouts)

£38000 - £45000 Per Annum + excellent benefits package: Clearwater People Solu...

MI Analyst and SQL Developer (SQL, SSAS, SSRS)

£28000 - £32500 Per Annum + 28 days holiday, pension, discounts and more: Clea...

Creative Content Executive (writer, social media, website)

£30000 - £35000 Per Annum + 25 days holiday and bonus: Clearwater People Solut...

Reception Teachers needed for September 2014

£110 - £130 per day + Competitive rates of pay: Randstad Education Reading: Re...

Day In a Page

Read Next
 

August catch-up: second languages, the secret of love and is it all right to call someone stupid?

John Rentoul
High and mighty: Edinburgh Castle and city skyline  

i Editor's Letter: We're coming to Edinburgh

Oliver Duff Oliver Duff
Israel-Gaza conflict: No victory for Israel despite weeks of death and devastation

Robert Fisk: No victory for Israel despite weeks of devastation

Palestinians have won: they are still in Gaza, and Hamas is still there
Mary Beard writes character reference for Twitter troll who called her a 'slut'

Unlikely friends: Mary Beard and the troll who called her a ‘filthy old slut’

The Cambridge University classicist even wrote the student a character reference
America’s new apartheid: Prosperous white districts are choosing to break away from black cities and go it alone

America’s new apartheid

Prosperous white districts are choosing to break away from black cities and go it alone
Amazon is buying Twitch for £600m - but why do people want to watch others playing Xbox?

What is the appeal of Twitch?

Amazon is buying the video-game-themed online streaming site for £600m - but why do people want to watch others playing Xbox?
Tip-tapping typewriters, ripe pongs and slides in the office: Bosses are inventing surprising ways of making us work harder

How bosses are making us work harder

As it is revealed that one newspaper office pumps out the sound of typewriters to increase productivity, Gillian Orr explores the other devices designed to motivate staff
Manufacturers are struggling to keep up with the resurgence in vinyl records

Hard pressed: Resurgence in vinyl records

As the resurgence in vinyl records continues, manufacturers and their outdated machinery are struggling to keep up with the demand
Tony Jordan: 'I turned down the chance to research Charles Dickens for a TV series nine times ... then I found a kindred spirit'

A tale of two writers

Offered the chance to research Charles Dickens for a TV series, Tony Jordan turned it down. Nine times. The man behind EastEnders and Life on Mars didn’t feel right for the job. Finally, he gave in - and found an unexpected kindred spirit
Could a later start to the school day be the most useful educational reform of all?

Should pupils get a lie in?

Doctors want a later start to the school day so that pupils can sleep later. Not because teenagers are lazy, explains Simon Usborne - it's all down to their circadian rhythms
Prepare for Jewish jokes – as Jewish comedians get their own festival

Prepare for Jewish jokes...

... as Jewish comedians get their own festival
SJ Watson: 'I still can't quite believe that Before I Go to Sleep started in my head'

A dream come true for SJ Watson

Watson was working part time in the NHS when his debut novel, Before I Go to Sleep, became a bestseller. Now it's a Hollywood movie, too. Here he recalls the whirlwind journey from children’s ward to A-list film set
10 best cycling bags for commuters

10 best cycling bags for commuters

Gear up for next week’s National Cycle to Work day with one of these practical backpacks and messenger bags
Paul Scholes: Three at the back isn’t working yet but given time I’m hopeful Louis van Gaal can rebuild Manchester United

Paul Scholes column

Three at the back isn’t working yet but given time I’m hopeful Louis van Gaal can rebuild Manchester United
Kate Bush, Hammersmith Apollo music review: A preamble, then a coup de théâtre - and suddenly the long wait felt worth it

Kate Bush shows a voice untroubled by time

A preamble, then a coup de théâtre - and suddenly the long wait felt worth it
Robot sheepdog technology could be used to save people from burning buildings

The science of herding is cracked

Mathematical model would allow robots to be programmed to control crowds and save people from burning buildings
Tyrant: Is the world ready for a Middle Eastern 'Dallas'?

This tyrant doesn’t rule

It’s billed as a Middle Eastern ‘Dallas’, so why does Fox’s new drama have a white British star?