Power to the People?

Stuart Weir
16 May 2008

Stuart Weir (Cambridge, Democratic Audit): There was the official welcome from the chair, "Hazel Blears is here", following an informal clue to her arrival as a man in black slid two blocks behind the speaker's plinth from which she was to speak. So in she bounced to deliver a brisk and rousing speech to local council delegates from across the country at the Local Government Information Unit's "Power to the People" conference in London. I think the delegates were roused, and I myself was not immune to her spirited commitment to empowering people; and also, to the general spirit of optimism that seems to have overtaken many in local government about the government's commitment to "new $localism".

Blears promised a white paper on empowerment in a few weeks which was, she said, still open for ideas. It is all part of the Queen's Speech agenda introducing bills to increase accountability in the NHS, police, local government, schools, housing and regeneration policy. And while she is at it, she is also promising empowerment for local authorities who desperately need it. Quite whether she or her master will go as far as speakers and delegates at the conference were demanding is another matter. Among their proposals, for example, were a merger of primary care trusts and local authorities, handing the proceeds of the business rate back to local councils (this would apparently double their money at a stroke) and finally resolving the whole of local government funding and the future of council tax. It was I think Chris Leslie, the former minister who is now director of the New Local Government Network, who said that council tax could be revalued so long as government would chuck £4 billion at people in the form of transitional relief - money that could be raised by a one-off tax on the super rich. Now there's an idea that would secure Gordon Brown's fortunes (with me at least).

Loads of delegates also warned strongly that consultation exercises were all very well, but when government simply ignored them - over for example decisions on Heathrow, the closures of post offices, unpopular development proposals - then people felt doubly frustrated and far more harm than good was done. At the very least, the terms on which people were asked to participate ought to be made ringingly clear.

Even so, the government clearly means to balance its faltering commitment to empowering Parliament with efforts to give local authorities and communities a greater say. Hazel Blears announced an interesting proposal to build on the propensity among British people to sign petitions- we are one of the biggest petition-signing countries in Europe and the world. The idea is to make petitions the trigger for a local authority response on issues that local people are concerned about - for example, directing more council money to tackle anti-social behaviour, graffiti or drug dealing on estates, funding skateboard parks or youth clubs, taking over the running of neglected community or leisure centres - and generally giving them a share in local spending decisions that affect them or their communities. She also has plans to give the public more say on health budgets as well as a voice in deciding how local policing will be delivered.

My own concerns rise to the surface. How will the government achieve any kind of balance in power between the middle and professional classes who dominate participation in political and community affairs in ways that reinforce their greater power and those who most need voice and influence? Aren't local authorities and other more unaccountable service authorities (primary care, policing) all too large and remote to achieve the aims of "double devolution" from the centre to neighbourhoods and communities? Isn't all this participatory budgeting for scraps of funding and left overs, tokenistic and not substantial? Don't local authorities need substantial funding themselves to make a reality of new localism?

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