Nick Cuff: A nasty dose of centralism
Nick Cuff is a Councillor in the London Borough of Wandsworth and works in public policy.
The New Labour Project can be diagnosed as having contracted a nasty case of constitutional imbalance. Among its symptoms are a series of recent political controversies concerning schoolteacher appointments, prisoner releases, and frayed lines of accountability in the NHS. Aneurin Bevan once claimed upon creating the NHS that "not a single bedpan should fall on a hospital floor without the clatter being heard in Whitehall". In today’s Whitehall, add to that claim the dropping of a school book, the shutting of a prison gate, and the siren of a panda car and you have a good picture of how centralised governance in this country has become.
In 2000/1, the Public Administration Select Committee published a report: Mapping the Quango State. This showed 5,338 officially recognised local public bodies, in comparison with 4,732 in the mid-1990s. This was in addition to the 295 new task forces and 2,295 new partnerships, boards of zones and cross-sectoral bodies which they documented. At the same time, adding and complementing this proliferation of executive agencies was the creation of hundreds of Whitehall targets compelling Town Halls to meet pre-determined goals.
This state of affairs has a withering effect on the vibrancy of democracy and in particular, local democracy. It harms lines of accountability and transparency which impacts negatively on voting participation. It is both costly and bureaucratic and finally, it attacks the very principle of small Government that Conservatives hold dear.
In a recent YouGov survey commissioned by the LGiU, 66% of the public said that councils’ main priorities should be decided by elected, local representatives. When asked whether a council’s performance should be judged by local voters or by government inspectors, three quarters opted for the former and only 13% were comfortable with Government inspectors scrutinising services. People want a say over the services they receive at the ground level. They want clear lines of accountability and transparency. And yet, the Government’s response is to consider a reorganisation of councils into much larger units.
Documents released under Freedom of Information legislation (ODPM, 2006) shed light on current Whitehall thinking. The scales are sky high, a minimum size of 250,000 and a maximum of 1,000,000 for unitary authorities has been discussed. This is despite the fact that Britain already has some of the largest units of local government in the democratic world.
Over the channel in France there are 116 people per elected councillor, 250 in Germany and 397 in Italy. In the UK, it is 2605. Elected representatives are already too remote and disempowered. People’s cries for action are going unheard.
How remote are UK councils?
Average population per council and People per elected councillor
France - 1,580 - 116
Germany - 4,925 - 250
Italy - 7,130 - 397
Norway - 9,000 - 515
Spain - 4,930 - 597
Sweden - 30,040 - 667
Belgium - 16,960 - 783
Denmark - 18,760 - 1,084
Portugal- 32,300 - 1,125
UK- 118,400 - 2,605
The Quango state has also proved costly. Targets create a compliance culture. The LGA recently claimed that slashing 1000 Whitehall-led targets would save £2.5 billion. And according to their estimates, this would be the equivalent of buying 33,000 teachers, 14,000 police officers and 37,000 nursing home beds for the elderly.
Targets also stifle innovation. We need to move away from a risk-averse public sector in favour of an innovation culture amongst our public services. Experimentation, undertaking different approaches to meet the needs of different areas, will ensure the flexibility to meet the challenges of rapidly changing demographics. At the moment, public management is built around the premise that service delivery is a monolithic entity able to be managed with generic directions. It must move to a light touch, flexible and responsive approach if we are to ensure innovation, choice and participation.
Finally, big Government disenfranchises the electorate. People realise they do not have a say or perceive their local representatives as being unable to influence decision making. As a result, they lose interest in the democratic process. It is not apathy, it is disengagement. As Conservatives a bold new agenda must focus on changing the direction of the public sector away from micro management. It must take a more localist dimension and must not be afraid of failure.