29 July 2007

Andrew George, the Liberal Democrat MP for St Ives, Cornwall says in the Western Morning News for 26 July 2007: “The simple principle should be established that decisions which affect one community and no other should be taken in that community and not by others outside it.” He was responding to the news that the government has accepted Cornwall county council’s proposals for a unitary council.

On the face of it, most people would agree with this localism. Local people should decide local issues not people far away who are do not know at first hand the issue and do not have to live daily with the decision. Even the European Union believes, it says, in subsidiarity, the idea that a decision should be taken at the lowest possible level of relevance and competence. There’s even a saw about the principle: The wearer knows best where the shoe pinches.

There are, however, serious difficulties with the simple principle. Let me look at a few.

(1) It is difficult to identify items which affect only “one community and no other.” Issues and decisions tend to leak all over the place. One of the arguments against English votes for English affairs is that of interdependence and consequential effect. As Cornwall, even a devolved Cornwall, would not be self-financing, all local decisions in Cornwall depend upon money from other communities, a point made by some exasperated people in England about the spending decisions of the Barnett-financed devolved parliaments and assemblies in Scotland and Wales.

Who pays the bills for local decisions? Not the locality, most cannot afford it. In a way all decisions affect everyone because everyone pays. (Actually not every adult pays; some people receive but do not give.)

I suppose we are talking about not absolute independence but the degree of independence and the degree to which that the decision impacts upon the daily life a particular community rather than others.

Whether and where to build a car park or lavatory and what fees to charge are suitable for local decision; their impact is overwhelmingly upon the local community (and its visitors) hardly at all on people many miles away. The cost is relatively modest.

However, building a school involves significant money in land and building costs and subsequent running costs and well-educated children matter to us all. Others will therefore have an interest.

(2) I think that by and large local people or local councils do not take as broad and long a view as people, like central government, who are immersed in complex interdependent decisions and who usually work on broadly benthamite principles. Local decisions are about the immediate practical issues and effects not universal principles, all trees and no wood.

Despite the chatter about community the localist emphasis is often on me rather than us. Local decisions are not likely to be so liberal as centralised decisions: read this depressing account of the response of the locality to the most deserving and respectable of people. Ask would any affordable housing for first-time buyers get built in Cornwall if people in the locality made the decision and there was no national insistence? What then are the prospects for any provision for the vulnerable and the socially difficult: how many rehabilative hostels would get permission if it depended solely upon locals and not national guidance? Where would one build the less desirable but wholly necessary facilities of life such as sewage works, incinerators, and factories if every local population everywhere had a veto?

(3) An aspect of (2) is what we have come to call the post code lottery: different quality of services in different areas, even some areas lacking the services provided in others, all on the irrational basis of human geography. Nothing about need, only the dictate of the most assertive and demanding of local opinions and local elbows. The sharp elbow model of redistribution, a model which in many places gives very little to a whole galaxy of people – single mothers, aspirant first time house buyers looking for affordable housing, and people living untidy lives.

If locals in Cornwall decided what priority of health money and treatment should be given to people, would not those with locally out-of-favour illnesses get little? In Cornwall with a larger than average proportion of pensioners how would HIV and alcoholism and drug addiction fare against arthritis and mobility problems? The national service sets national rules which try to ensure a reasonably fair shot for everyone.

(4) Of course by localism politicians often mean not the affected immediate locality and its inhabitants taking decisions but a broader community: the district or the county or even region rather than the hamlet. In Cornwall it might turn out to be people of Wadebridge and Bodmin deciding what happens in Penzance and Camborne, or vice versa, though this is an outcome Andrew George opposes.

(5) Localism also tends in practice to mean not decisions by the people but by their claimed representatives. And this in turn means a well-organised group can unduly influence council decisions; the ideal picture is of a community coming together to decide what it wants and in what order. In reality localism can be government by the noisy and those sharp elbows, the prejudices and preferences of local people who are assertive and articulate, rather than by the people though that applies to national government too.

A simple principle? No, it isn’t.

Additamentum 1 August 2007 Permission for the service forces accommodation at Ashtead was unanimously given by councillors today.

See also this later post: If you can’t do it right, make it shiny