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Cameron Watt: Indirect Democracy

CW pic Cameron Watt is Head of Neighbourhoods at the National Housing Federation. He has previously worked for the Centre for Social Justice and the Renewing One Nation Unit at Conservative Central Office.

The Localism Bill, currently negotiating its committee stage in the Lords, is a powerful expression of the Conservative instinct to devolve decision making away from Whitehall and give power to ordinary people over their homes, neighbourhoods and lives. This Bill will give individuals and communities much more scope to shape the future of their areas.

But there is one measure in the Bill that is completely contrary to the spirit of direct democracy and the Government’s commitment to shift power from the state to the citizen. If this Bill is passed unamended, all tenants in social housing will no longer be able to take a complaint they have about their landlord straight to the housing ombudsman. Instead, it will have to made through a third party – an MP, a local councillor or a tenant panel.

Of course, if a tenant wants to approach a politician for help they should be able to do so. But if they want the continued freedom to take their case straight to the ombudsman themselves, as Conservatives we should not be forcing them to do otherwise.

Quite apart from the freedom of choice issues this raises, it is a completely unnecessary added layer of bureaucracy. More people in the process means more red tape and more expense, as MPs, staff and councillors will need to be trained to deal with the variety and complexity of new complaints.

The Conservative Party has rightly pledged to reduce the overall burden of regulation during this Parliament. The Government’s Red Tape Challenge website states:

“We have got to trust people and give them more freedom to do the right thing. So this government has set a clear aim: to leave office having reduced the overall burden of regulation. With more than 21,000 regulations active in the UK today, this won’t be an easy task – but we’re determined to cut red tape.”

Lengthening the complaints process will discourage some people with perfectly legitimate complaints against their landlord from pursuing them. It will stop people who know far more about their situation than local politicians from applying their own knowledge directly.

So my question is: why are we increasing the burden of regulation on our citizens, rather than empowering them to take control of their own complaints? I don’t want to go through my MP in order to complain about my local services, so why should social housing tenants not have the same freedom?


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