The answers are all around us: Westminster should look to local communities to solve Britain's problems, says Paddy Ashdown

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The Independent Online
DURING the past three months I have spent two and a half days each week away from Westminster, living and working with some of the communities of our country. It was a private tour, without the press or politician's razzmatazz.

One of my motives was that Westminster seems to be increasingly out of touch with real conditions in Britain, and the solutions that are available for our problems. This is not a phenomenon confined to Britain. There is a mood of anti-politics growing in all the advanced democracies. Sometimes it shows in support for mavericks such as Ross Perot. Sometimes, as in much of continental Europe, it manifests itself in the rise of extremists, especially of the right.

So far, we in Britain have been spared these overt symptoms of the malaise of the Nineties. Here the process has been more insidious, but the attacks on our establishment have been just as powerful - as the monarchy, the police, the judiciary and politicians themselves have all found to their cost.

No programme of visits can be comprehensive and my conclusions are, necessarily, anecdotal and subjective. But I have been left with several powerful impressions. The first is that Britain is in a profoundly depressed and bewildered state. There is a deep, almost tangible, sense that hope has died and leadership failed. In the Eighties, we thought we really were solving some of our problems; now we know that we weren't. Indeed, we seem to be back more or less where we started.

The second is that people are desperately looking for a lead - and not just from the Government. Opposition politicians are blamed almost as much. A silk weaver in Suffolk summed it up: 'Why don't you ever get your act together? You are all as bad as each other. I don't want to trust my kids to you lot. You think only of yourselves.'

The third is that Westminster is increasingly seen as irrelevant. No one understands what the Maastricht treaty is about. The fuss in the Commons is seen as a monstrous waste of time when we should be trying to solve the country's problems, and there is real anger over the refusal to allow a referendum.

Much of the legislation we pass is seen, at best, as meaningless and, at worst, as positively damaging. Try implementing the Sea Fish Conservation Act on the bucking deck of a trawler in a Force Seven in the Irish Sea; or policing Moss Side with its gun-carrying teenage drug pushers while observing the Police and Criminal Evidence Act; or teaching the national curriculum in Peckham, where schools have 14 different mother tongues to cope with. You will soon see what I mean. The gap between government and governed in Britain is dangerously wide, and getting wider.

But there are more positive lessons Westminster could learn, if only it would emerge from its stuffy corridors and committee rooms long enough to do so. There are initiatives that could offer real hope, but they usually get off the ground despite the politicians, rather than because of them.

Such initiatives include the Eldonian co-operative, where people in a deprived Liverpool community decided that they were not going to be pushed out of their homes by the city council, fought and beat the politicians and have now built their own houses on an estate that would not look out of place in any top builder's brochure. Or the miners of Monktonhall, who, against the opposition of British Coal and (again) the local politicians, each found pounds 10,000 of their own money to buy their pit, from which they now produce coal at half British Coal's price.

Or the community in Solihull, which has understood, as we in Westminster have not, that tackling crime is everybody's business. It has set up its own community crime prevention scheme, involving local statutory and voluntary bodies. First-year figures for the scheme show a marked drop in crime rates, even though they are rising everywhere else. Or the silk weavers of Sudbury, who have converted a traditional industry into an international market leader because they realise that they have to trade in worldwide markets or die. They have succeeded through the skill of their workers, use of new technologies and a dedication to quality, design and added value. There is a model here for an industrial policy for the whole country, if only we could see it.

Or those innovators who invented 'planning for real'. This is a technique being pioneered in community developments to give local people a decisive say in the planning process. So consultation takes place right at the beginning and genuine choices are offered. As a major developer told me in east London's Brick Lane, this means not only more sensitive planning, but also a reduction in the bureaucratic delay that holds up so much development. Under 'planning for real', local people feel a sense of ownership of the project, and are more likely to work with it, rather than against it.

These are the success stories. The initiative and enterprise that is so much a part of the British spirit is alive in our communities, even if it seems so dead in our politics. Which leads me to two conclusions.

First, in Britain's present condition, Westminster is not one of the solutions but is too often one of the problems. Westminster is out of date, out of ideas and out of touch. We must start to build a more modern system of government for our country - a process the Americans have called 'reinventing government'. Then government would become involved more effectively in the hard choices, and would treat our people as intelligent citizens who can be told the truth, not fed on a diet of electoral lies. But this will not work unless we change the culture of our politics into one that values co-operation as much as we now value confrontation.

Second, we cannot solve this country's problems unless we can find a way of unleashing again the power, imagination and dedication that, despite all the years of centralisation by governments of both parties, has survived in Britain's communities. The spirit of community is one of our most valuable assets. At present, it is being wasted, even suppressed.

But it is in local communities more than anywhere else that I have found solutions which work. Where projects succeed, they seem to succeed because the people in the community feel they own them. Where they fail it is because they are imposed from outside.

We have to discover a style of government that frees our communities from the obstructions which prevent them from implementing the ideas that meet local needs. If this means a government that interferes less and enables more, then so much the better.

If only Westminster were less jealous of its own power. If only politicians were prepared to listen to, learn from and share power with the communities that make up our nation. That way, the problems might not seem so intractable as they sometimes do to those sitting on the green benches of the House of Commons.

The author is MP for Yeovil and leader of the Liberal Democrats. He is writing an account of his visits in a book due to appear in 1994.

(Photograph omitted)