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.Reuse content