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Localism: what should happen next - including real local policing

by Paul Goodman


On Tuesday, I examined localism in principle, probing tensions between localism and growth, and between localism and other good outcomes (such as integration and cohesion).

Yesterday, I looked at it in practice, examining the Government's aims, and making five predictions.

Today, I want finally to look at what the Government should do next - in other words, look at the interplay between localist aspirations and political reality.  How important is localism to the election of a Conservative Government next time round?

To answer the question, it's important -

First, to try to work out what the main issues at the next election will be.  I suspect much as follows -

  • The economy.
  • The public services - and, in particular, schools and hospitals.
  • Law and order.

These, along with immigration control, are the staple concerns of voters during recent elections, and there's no reason why this should change, short of the eruption of war or terrorism.  Localism will help to deliver on the issues.  As I hope I've made clear to date, I believe that although there are short-term tensions between localism and growth, it's a big long-term role to play in improving public services.

Second, it's important to grasp that elections are about character as much as issues.  Localism will help to show character - to illustrate what's important to David Cameron, what gets him going, what makes the Government tick.  The Big Society, the post-bureaucratic age, localism, social justice: all these are integral parts of his Burkean pitch, which is why part of the reason why he shouldn't drop them.

All in all, then, localism's what I'd call an important second-order policy.  It matters less than getting growth, with which it can conflict - and which is definitely a first-order policy.  I'll try to show how the Government should apply it by giving each key area a "localism mark" out of ten - thus indicating my view of roughly how localist the policy should be.
  • Local Government.  Eric Pickles is combining a big return of powers to local councils (scrapping regional development agencies, abolishing the standards board, phasing out ring-fencing, ending the comprehensive area assessment, and so on) with lots of publicity-grabbing announcements (he was at it again yesterday over bloggers and Council meetings) - all at a time of a severe local government spending scaleback.  Some would like the Government to go much further.  Matthew Sinclair's response to my first piece reminded me that the Taxpayers Alliance wants a big shift from national to local taxes.  In his book Which Way's Up?, Nick Boles champions the same idea, suggesting that the Chancellor should aim to achieve it by 2015.  I think there's a strong case for gradually returning business taxes to local authorities, and there are reports today that the Government's considering exactly that.  But attempting to restructure Britain's tax base at the same time as trying to pay off debt and go for growth is asking for trouble.  I'd stick broadly to what Pickles is doing.  Localism mark: 6 out of 10.
  • NHS.  Andrew Lansley's NHS reform are localist in so far as they shift some power to health professionals and patients, and are being accompanied by a reduction in central government targets.  Carswell and Hannan would like the Government to go further and introduce individual health accounts.  I believe that Lansley's changes are, in political terms, risky enough as it is.  As Nigel Lawson wrote in his memoirs, the NHS "is the closest thing the English have to a religion, with those who practice in it regarding themselves as a priesthood".  This helps to explain why Margaret Thatcher made only one major structural change to the service - GP fundholding - in three terms.  As I explained yesterday, it's too early to say whether GPs will greet the Big Bang scrapping of Primary Care Trusts by getting fully behind the change, or manoevre to stifle surgery competition and avoid responsibility for difficult choices (such as hospital closures).  Overall, localism is a relatively small element in Lansley's restructuring, which is likely to give a bigger role to private rather than local providers.  I'd keep it that way.  Local authorities will have the lead responsibility for public health, but the notion of returning other healthcare provision to them is dead. Localism mark: 3 out of 10.
  • Education.  Michael Gove's Free Schools drive is impeccably localist and his push for academies little less so, since they'll have much more freedom in relation to pay and conditions.  Driving standards up through competition from the bottom is one of the two main drivers of the Education Secretary's strategy, and his stress on getting a fair deal for Britain's poorest pupils shows emotional intelligence.  The other main driver is intervention from the top - the reform of league tables, the national curriculum, and the introduction of Gove's baccalaureate.  This makes his approach, like that of every Conservative Education Secretary since Kenneth Baker, a horses-for-courses mix of the very localist and the extremely centralist.  I believe that the localist element - the free schools experiment and more academies - is going to make a real mark for the better on our educational landscape.  The Education Secretary is becoming the Cabinet's most significant localist reformer.  All he has to do is not get knocked off course by battles about strikes and "cuts".  Localism mark: 7 out of 10.
  • Policing.  I wrote yesterday that Police Commissioners will turn out to be a very mixed bag.  I think that the size of the police authority areas they represent is too big to give local people a real sense of ownership their commissioner.  This is a pity.  Most streets don't have a hospital on their corner.  Very few have a school.  But very many indeed are affected by litter, graffiti, noise, anti-social behaviour and crime.  This is why policing should be as local as possible.  I'm thus a fan of maximum localism in this area, hold with the Peelian principle ("the police are the public, and the public are the police"), and remember that local policing in England stretches back to Shakespeare's time and further.  Policing is the one area where I'd be much more localist than the Government, and it follows from this that there should be more police commissioners responsible for smaller police forces.  The policing establishment would disagree.  (It wants bigger ones.)  Ministers, however, might not - and smaller forces would be consistent with the establishment of the new National Crime Agency to deal with serious organised crime.  Let's go for real localist change.  Localism mark: 8 out of 10.
  • The Big Society.  David Cameron's Big Society vision is by definition localist.  Some parts of it, such as charitable giving and more volunteering, are intrinsically localist.  Other bits of it, such as the provision of public services by new providers are less so, because private providers aren't necessarily local ones.  I wrote yesterday that a key will be how contracts for services are framed, and it's hard to add more - other than to note that yesterday the Financial Times's political blog repeated Nick Timmin's story about the Government dropping its proposal for quotas to ensure that voluntary and charitable groups deliver a certain proportion of services.  This is a hard category to judge.  Non-local private providers may end up running a bigger proportion of public services than mutuals, co-operatives, charities and so forth.  Localism mark: 7 out of 10.

You may ask why I haven't included welfare.  The answer is that although new providers will run some services - such as getting incapacity benefit claimants into work (and keeping them there), benefits look largely to remain controlled from Whitehall and paid at national rates.


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