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Is the Government as localist as we are led to believe?

By Jonathan Isaby
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I ask the question above on the back of Rachel Sylvester's piece in this morning's TImes (£).

She reckons that for all the talk in opposition by the Conservatives (and the Lib Dems for that matter) of a “fundamental shift” of power to local people and institutions, in office this Government has failed to live up to that billing.

She accepts that the Localism Bill is currently going through its parliamentary stages - a piece of legislation which will, for instance, give residents the power to veto excessive council tax increases, instigate local referendums on local issues and give voluntary and community groups the right to challenge local authorities over their services.

But she goes on to list a number of example of ways in which central government is imposing uniform solutions, such as:

  • national guidelines for retailers, broadcasters and councils to prevent the sexualisation of children;
  • plans to tackle extremism that will include controls on universities and Muslim groups;
  • plans to protect designated wildlife sites; 
  • a huge housebuilding programme on public sector land;
  • attempting to micromanage how local authorities deal with rubbish;
  • the announcement of a freeze in council tax;
  • strict rules on the number of poor pupils that universities must accept in return for higher tuition fees;
  • the intention to press ahead with high-speed rail, despite local objections;
  • ministers taking back the power to make big infrastructure decisions themselves about the siting of nuclear power stations.
Even the most committed localist would surely accept that some of those issues do need to be taken centrally, particularly where national security and infrastructure are involved.

But some of those issues she raises do seem to go against the spirit of the localist agenda.

However, just one year into the life of the Government, I think it's rather too early to be trying to conclude one way or the other as to whether death knell has been sounded for the idea.

It is interesting to note in Sylvester's piece, however, that whilst she cites Nick Clegg and Oliver Letwin as "the champions of decentralisation", she says that George Osborne is the "leading sceptic" when it comes to localism,with the Chancellor having allegedly once described it as “very much a third-term issue”.

Certainly I imagine that after working so hard and waiting so long to win power that it must be quite difficult to start surrendering it...


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