Thursday, 19 February 2009

Tory localism

The past couple of years have seen a near consensus amongst Tories and Labour on the rhetoric of local government. Localism and double devolution, community empowerment and negotiated priorities have dominated the discourse.

Rhetoric and reality remain largely disconnected. Labour's local government reforms have tended in the right direction, but, as Simon Jenkins pointed out in yesterday's Guardian, without devolution of financial responsibility (i.e. revenue raising powers) localism remains merely an aspiration.

For all their rhetoric, the same charge can be levelled at the Tories. Their recent Policy Green Paper, Control Shift. Returning Power to Local Communities, is a major disappointment. Its proposals are remarkably similar to the government's, and in many instances merely semantic differences. What is the tangible difference between the current duty to promote economic, environmental and social wellbeing, and the paper's proposed "power of competence"?

If the Tories really want to put clear blue water between them and Labour, they should have sought ways to devolve financial powers to local authorities. On this, the paper was silent.

Instead, the paper is a agglomeration of small scale initiatives and partisan appeals to those worried about development in their back yard (who simultaneously bemoan the lack of affordable housing) and those encouraged to fury by the Taxpayers Alliance over public sector pay. It's more partisan than might have been expected.

Tuesday saw the proposals defended by Caroline Spelman on the Today programme. She took the partisan defence of the Tory position to another level. She defended a Tory commitment to localism with the bizarre statement that as more councils were now Tory, then power could be devolved to them. In short, only Tory councils deserved more power. As well as being a strange basis for localism, this view is also profoundly undemocratic. That she made it openly begs into question her intelligence and competence (as did her assertion that Labour councils could not be trusted because of the council tax rises they posted in the 1970s - the council tax didn't exist in the 1970s).

The Tories may have begun with a meaningful commitment to localism, but it's been lost in an appeal to their core vote in the shires, a stance on devolution that flies in the face of democratic principles, and a staggering level of incompetence and ignorance on the part of the shadow secretary of state.

Control Shift is more than a missed opportunity. It's a damning indictment of Tory thinking on local government. This is perhaps one area where I genuinely thought the Conservatives might have something to offer. Sadly, it's better the devil you know.

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