Monday, March 26, 2012

Lon Won's Evil Liberal Masterplan

Tackling the problem of the deficit is causing much misery. And regardless of the Chancellor's apparent optimism in last week's Budget about unemployment and growth, the signs are that things are likely to get much worse before they get better.

I believe there's a liberal idea that might help.

What's grinding your gears?
The basic idea is to give local government more autonomy to decide what services it wishes to provide, what mechanisms will provide them, and what taxes will fund them. These powers would then be balanced by a right for local voters to use petitions to trigger binding local referenda.

Note: Some of what's envisaged is already possible, and a shift in power from central government to local authorities is the major theme of the Localism Act 2011. But to keep the discussion simple I'm just going to focus here on the principles rather than these details, because I think that even after the Act we might be left with a mixture of different types of localism that are inadequately accountable to citizens. Note also that I'm mostly talking about England here. Similar considerations might apply to Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland, but drawing the Scottish Government, the Welsh Government, and the Northern Ireland Executive into this blogpost would complicate the points being made about the balance between "central" and "local" government.

More costs, more uncertainty, more chaos?

It's not a glamorous idea, and at first glance it sounds like one of those "It'll cost lots of money; the gains are uncertain; and chaos is guaranteed" type of ideas. At times it's almost as if we revel in such ideas in this country.

But actually there needn't be any costs at all: councils could choose to do just the same as they do now. Or they could make different choices about services to provide.

This might mean losing economies of scale from doing some things nationally (e.g. in relation to roads, health, income tax, or benefits); so councils would need to convince voters about the financial implications of proposals. Perhaps there might be efficiencies from cooperation between councils that want to do similar things. Or perhaps a council might choose to award a contract to a local firm in order to save jobs that would otherwise incur redundancy and unemployment costs. Or perhaps a council might take a chance on a new technology or method in a way that central government couldn't.

It might be sensible for councils to jointly fund some kind of contract advisory service, to help councils build on proven contracts. It would also be very sensible to pay for a longitudinal research study following the progress of a range of these local government innovations. But it would be up to individual councils to choose to invest in such things.

It's true that the gains are uncertain; but at a time when national economic stagnation looks like the most optimistic future for the next few years, liberalising state services encourages the opening up of new possibilities. Rather than so many of us whining about "The Government" is doing or not doing, councils could actually put new ideas to the test.

It's also true that there might be a little bit more chaos than we're used to, but surely such liberalisation is better than the monolithic control freakery that has taken root in our state since the Second World War? And liberalisation isn't all or nothing: it's possible to have a bit more localism without the country necessarily descending into some kind of Yugoslavian-style civil catastrophe.

No, the more profound objections to this proposal are not to do with costs, uncertainty or chaos. These objections appear once the rationale for the proposal is made clear.

What's good for London isn't necessarily good for the Lake District. Giving councils greater power over what they do for a locality enables them to weigh up the pros and cons of what has been done nationally, to innovate, to test, to refine, and to be judged by the voters on their success.

Pleasant land
and satanic mills
1. Empowering local engines for growth: It's clear that economic growth is needed to avoid worsening economic misery. The UK Government is focused on stopping the deficit increasing, but different parts of the country should be able to take advantage of their own particular local strengths to encourage growth. More autonomous decision-making enables this.

2. Enabling different local priorities: Councils focus on the problems that particularly matter in their area. Everybody everywhere wants to fight crime, help the sick, educate the next generation, and so on; but maybe Devon wants to put more resources into helping the elderly, Southwark into tackling knife crime. Priorities differ. More autonomy allows for more flexibility over rebalancing of resources, in the light of local knowledge about what needs attention over time. Devolution of certain powers to Wales and Scotland has been a great success, and no-one wants to return to the previous over-centralised system. Local people should be able to decide on their priorities for schools, hospitals, police, post offices and so on, within a freer national framework.

3. Taking account of different local conditions: Let's stop pretending that conditions are the same everywhere. Why should teachers in Toxteth get paid the same as teachers in Tatterford? The ability to attract staff with the appropriate skill set, the cost of living, the demands made and so on are quite different. We know that housing benefits, disability support, water costs, VAT receipts, fuel costs, and the like differ depending on local conditions; so why not put councils in charge of how to raise and allocate local resources?

Petitions don't have to be signed using quills
4. Fostering postcode democracy: Much is made of a "postcode lottery". What about postcode democracy? It is mad for Westminster and Whitehall to be trying to micro-manage great cities like Birmingham and Manchester, and counties like Kent and Yorkshire. Meanwhile, the lines of local accountability for organizations such as Academy Schools, Foundation Hospitals, Serco, Virgin, May Gurney and so on sometimes seem unclear. It should be the people's locally elected representatives who call such organizations to account in relation to local work, and there should be mechanisms for action to be taken. Simpler lines of accountability lead to better control of costs. Local referenda are also an important brake on potentially disastrous plans that councils might choose to implement between elections.

5. Winning local buy-in for developments: Planning processes are often seen as Byzantine, and weighted in favour of developers, who get multiple bites of the cherry, who only need to obtain approval once (even when circumstances change or have been misrepresented), and who can get away with tokenistic contributions to the community. More autonomy would allow councils to set conditions on developments, such as a proportion of receipts, a tax on subsequent sales, or inspections. There might be referenda to choose between (say) a wind array on the horizon, a nuclear power station on the beach, or imported energy.

Oh I do like to be beside the seaside

Teletubby turbines
6. Tackling climate change: Following on from the previous point, climate change is a critical issue for this proposal. Obviously many kinds of concerted initiatives to deal with climate change need to take place at national and international level; but many aspects of energy generation, energy efficiency, mitigation and adaptation need considered decision-making at local level. Citizens need to be able to experience both the benefits and costs of their decisions locally, or we will continue blithely down the path towards environmental calamity.

7. Enabling innovation and piloting: Liberalising local government does not necessitate either Thatcherite union-bashing corporatism on the one hand, or profligate PC jobsworth totalitarianism on the other. Councils would be free to pursue their own preferred ways of delivering particular services, whether that's in-house, contracts with companies, or in conjunction with other organisations. Freedom to innovate is motivating. It is disgraceful that poorly thought-out legislation such as the Health and Social Care Act get imposed nationwide with proper rounds of piloting and evaluation. More autonomy allows ideas to be put to the test. Of course it's true that councils might choose to go for the monorail rather than more frequent buses; they might choose to build the casino rather than the theatre; the nuclear power station rather than the wind farm. But councils must be allowed to make mistakes, so long as there is complete transparency and accountability to local voters.

Key objections

1. Privatisation: The furore over the HSC Act suggests that "privatisation" is a powerful concern of the public. This is slightly odd as many GPs have always been self-employed on the whole, with contractual arrangements with the NHS; i.e. they're not employees of the NHS. And the recent re-opening of health service delivery to non-profit and charitable organisations is also perhaps not widely appreciated.

Not George Obsorne
Nevertheless, the arguably emotive label "privatisation" points to a number of very reasonable worries, of which the possibility of fees for previously free services is just one. Another worry is that because private companies need to make a profit, they either provide a worse service (to cut costs), or they overcharge compared with an entirely state-run service, or they make savings in relation to employees (e.g. paying them less, providing worse conditions, failing to fund training, reducing job security, cutting pensions, and so on). A third worry is that such companies are less accountable and less transparent in how they operate. Finally, some people see such companies as less caring, less generous and less honestly motivated than state-run services.

Response: These worries in relation to privatisation are legitimate. However, the right to trigger referenda should reassure citizens that they can veto the possibility of fees for previously free services, and that organisations affecting local people cannot get away with bad behaviour. Moreover, if they wish, voters can choose councils that have nothing to do with private companies at all.

2. Lack of belief in localism: As I've argued previously, localism is a hard sell for a variety of reasons, resulting in scepticism about its value and a lack of engagement by the public in local government. I've also noted that there are at least three types of localism, so the disadvantages of one type are sometimes seen as applying to others. In addition, the "postcode lottery" slogan resonates with many people: differences in practices always lead to unfairness, it is objected.
see no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil

Response: The widespread lack of belief in localism is admittedly challenging. Under this proposal, the shift in powers from central government to councils means that voters have more to lose, so this should help to increase awareness of council powers and to increase the motivation to engage. But I'm not sure the perceptions of local politicians would necessarily improve.

3. It's more complicated than that: Some will say that much of what's proposed is already happening; that the Localism Act 2011 is providing the rest (including a "general power of competence" for local authorities); and anyway this proposal says nothing about how to resolve existing problems with complex relationships between councils, citizens, companies, and central government.

Response: Fine. I'd like to hear more about that. More importantly, I'd like more people thinking about whether the balance in power between central and local government is about right or whether it could be usefully adjusted.

Evil Liberal Masterplan

Autonomous localism needs a change in mind-set from "What's the Government doing about it?" to "What can we do about it?" This could be parodied as JFK-lite, or Cameron's "Big Society", or "just more" community politics. But it's actually very liberal: increasing freedom for local citizens. Of course that freedom could be used to limit the size of the state or to address social issues; to enhance civil liberties or to increase law-and-order; to get more private sector involvement or to run all services in-house; to cooperate with other councils or to compete.

So it's a liberal proposal that could be used to do things that you very much don't like. If you don't trust the voters in your area to vote against these things locally, the alternative is that you continue to rely on voters in other parts of the country to vote against such things nationally. So, I think attitudes to this proposal might very well be influenced by what you think the next UK government is likely to do and by what you think of people in your area.

  1. "Local government gears" by LonWon. [CC BY-SA 3.0]
  2. "English ceremonial counties 1998" derived by Dr Greg from work by Nilfanion.[CC BY-SA 3.0]
  3. "petition" by League of Women Voters of California. [CC BY 2.0]
  4. View to Sizewell along the beach taken from Wikipedia. [CC BY-SA 3.0]
  5. "Windfarm" by Russell Smith (rasmithuk) [CC BY 2.0]
  6. "The not so slim controller" by Lee Turner [CC BY-NC-ND 2.0]
  7. "See No Evil" by Tim Ellis [CC BY-NC 2.0]

1 comment:

  1. References, very impressed. A more in-depth study than mine but along the same lines. Very good.