Thursday, July 29, 2010

The Natives Are Not Revolting


Tax is still the key to localism

Tyler recently attended another Westminster seminar on localism. You know, that's everyone's great idea for extracting more value from public services by running them locally rather than from Whitehall.

Like most such seminars, it was attended by a mix of civil servants, quangocrats, local government people, think tankers, private contractors, consultants, and various hangers-on like Tyler. In other words, it overwhelmingly comprised people who in one way or another are paid from the public purse (not, it should be stressed, Tyler).

All - well, pretty well all - were agreed that we must have more localism. After all, we currently have the most centralised system of government in any of the major developed economies, and that can't be right (see many previous posts eg here). Localism rocks.

But alas, the attendees could see problems. Very serious problems.

First, there's the issue of the locals themselves. I mean, have you ever actually met the locals? My dear! How can you possibly have localism when the locals are a bunch of fascists and/or idiots? How can they be trusted to do The Right Thing - ie the thing the people around the seminar table want done? There will clearly need be national guidelines and service standards, and locals certainly couldn't be trusted with say, setting their own welfare standards. Why, they might not take proper account of the European Decency Threshold. They might even revert to workhouses!

Second, there's the issue of capacity. Even if they were given more power over things like welfare, local councils just don't have the capacity to take on the job. Frankly, sweeping the streets and emptying the bins already stretches their meagre abilities to breaking point, and we need hardly dwell on the Baby P area.

Third, there's the closely related issue of infantalisation. Local councils themselves are fully aware of their own lack of capacity, and frankly they like it that way. They simply don't have the confidence and maturity to take on more challenging tasks. Mummy's apron strings offer a far safer and easier life.

Fourth, we could end up with a postcode lottery. A postcode lottery! Some councils might decide to provide different services to others, and then where would we be? Although it must be said that argument did take a bit of a hit when one speaker pointed out we already have a postcode lottery in much service provision - one often caused by administrative accident rather than deliberate policy.

Fifth, it would be expensive. No economies of scale, you see. All those little councils running their own separate little services, rather than relying on the super-efficient national services we currently enjoy. Er, yes... that argument also took a bit of a hit in subsequent discussion.

Sixth, few people out there among the locals actually seems to want it. The natives are not revolting. They are not manning the barricades demanding to be free. And stuffing localism down the unwilling throats of the apathetic locals sounds like a surefire recipe for disaster.

And you know, we've got some sympathy with many of those points - especially the last one.

We have long been strongly in favour of more localism, but it must be admitted that most people round our way don't actually want the council to have more power. True, the rubbish collection seems to work tolerably well, but that's long since been contracted out. Beyond that, people generally have very little confidence in the ability and judgement of the local council. There is no clamour whatsoever to give it more power, and precious little interest in who gets elected as councillors.

And Tyler himself has a pretty hypocritical attitude on this. He may be a big supporter of localism, but when he's actually been approached to stand for the council (there's a local recruitment drive going on right now), he's declined. He believes it would be a pretty thankless task, with no end of brickbats but precious little actual power. Responsibility without power - the classic meat in the sandwich between Whitehall and the angry citizens.

You see, at root, what we have here are our old friends Mr Chicken and Mr Egg.

Councils have lost confidence and capacity because over the last half century they've been gradually stripped of their traditional power and responsibility. They've come to rely on Whitehall for the vast bulk of their cash, and they therefore have to take instructions direct from Whitehall, rather than deciding things for themselves. Is it any wonder it's difficult to persuade people to stand for the council?

So now we face the prospect of localising control into the hands of our weak councils - quite a scary prospect. Yet if we don't do that, we will never start to rebuild all those capacities we've lost. We won't get the chicken unless we take a chance on the egg.

And what is the key step we need to take? As regular readers will know, we have long argued for fiscal decentralisation. Indeed we've even written research notes on the subject (eg see here).

What it means is that we need to go much further than simply have Whitehall hand over an even bigger pot of cash to our councils. What it means more than anything is making councils responsible for raising a much larger slice of their own cash for themselves from local taxpayers. We need to reverse the pattern of finance at least back to what it was before the terrible Wislon started the destruction of our local authorities in the 60s:


If once again, local councils were responsible for raising half their funding direct from local taxpayers, that would concentrate local minds wonderfully. Suddenly it would matter a whole lot who was running the town hall. People like Tyler would have a real incentive to get involved, and what's more, election to the council would never be a shoo-in.

If we are genuinely serious about localism, step one is the decentralise the tax system. Taxes always have been and always will be the key to local engagement.

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