We are told that during the recent election campaign the Conservative Party's "Big Society" theme "did not play well on the doorstep". But that has not deterred David Cameron from dragging the concept across the Downing Street threshold with him. Such persistence is broadly to be welcomed. The Big Society, despite its fuzziness, was one of the Tories' most progressive ideas, certainly far more appealing than the cynical scaremongering over "Broken Britain". The proposal to enable and encourage community groups, charities and social enterprises to play a more substantial role in the delivery of public services has much to recommend it. So does the proposal to allow parent co-operatives to set up and run their own state-funded schools.
But the poetry of a campaign now needs to be translated into the prose of government. This Government will be judged on the basis of policy, not slogans. And, when it comes to policy, detail is all. If ministers are going to revolutionise public services by opening up the sector to a host of new providers, they need to be clear about the lines of accountability for those new providers. And it is on this question of accountability where the coalition Government's plans are worryingly vague.
An official document released by the coalition yesterday specifies the goal of transferring power from central to local government. But some of the proposals floated by the Conservatives in the election campaign would have the opposite effect. The new Education Secretary, Michael Gove, has indicated that he envisages new parent-run state schools being directly accountable to his department, rather than local education authorities. That does not sound like a recipe for strengthening local government.
The Conservatives also campaigned on a promise to allow local communities the right to veto council tax rises. This too would be a significant restriction on the freedom of local authorities. The Tories now admit that Margaret Thatcher was wrong to strip local government of many of its powers in the 1980s. But such a move would merely cement that malign legacy.
Few would argue that local councils are, at present, exemplars of efficiency and competence. Many would even cheer proposals that diminished their powers. But councils will not improve their performance or become more responsive to local needs if central government continues to strip them of responsibility. A government that is serious about devolving power will resist such short-term populism.
The Liberal Democrats share the Conservatives' desire to allow local communities to play a more direct role in the delivery of public services. But their manifesto reflected a more realistic appreciation than the Tories of the role local government will need to play in this process, both as a watchdog and facilitator. The Liberal Democrats have long proposed a local income tax to replace the council tax, something that would put local government finances on a more secure footing. They also argue that local education authorities should retain authority over new schools.
The Liberal Democrat Deputy Prime Minister, Nick Clegg, put on a show of solidarity with Mr Cameron at yesterday's event presenting the Big Society programme. Yet we do not know to what extent Liberal Democrat realism will succeed in influencing the policies that emerge from this coalition. Yesterday's policy document from the coalition does pledge "a radical devolution of power and greater financial autonomy to local government". But as long as we lack detail, fears will persist that this is a government more committed to devolving power in the abstract than the concrete.Reuse content