IF YOU CAN’T DO IT RIGHT, MAKE IT SHINY

5 February 2008

Earlier, in this post I looked at some of the difficulties with localism.

All the main parties support localism and the others probably do too.

Recently Nick Clegg, the new Liberal Democrat leader, has been giving his views on localism. He wants to see the devolution of power from central government to localities, to communities and individuals, with “local solutions applied to local problems.”

However, he says that central government has an important role in localism: (1) it must allocate central money fairly among the localities, (2) it must guarantee equal access to public services, and (3) it must guarantee core standards and entitlements.

This is a reasonable start but it is merely a recital of general principles not a worked out program of action. The devil is in the detail.

What is “fair allocation” among localities? As I have tried to show in other posts this fairness is contentious and Clegg and the Liberal Democrats, and the others, should come up with an explanation of how they will decide fairness. Is it to be based on contended formulas based on statistical comparisons between local authorities and in that case which statistics? Or loud voices and sharp elbows and clamouring grievance?

Can communities be relied on always to be fair to everyone in the locality? I think the inclusion of (2) and (3) suggest some doubt. I share that doubt. How many traveller sites would be established if this was wholly down to local communities to decide? How many affordable houses would be built if local nimbys decided? Is not central government more likely than local to embrace universalist approaches to life? The negative meanings attached to the word parochial reflect our experience.

And what does equal access mean in practice, for example, for someone visiting hospital in a rural county like Cornwall with a car and someone without, for someone who can buy themselves into the catchment area of a good school and someone who can’t, for someone in Cornwall able to pay for private dentistry and someone who can’t and can’t get a regular NHS dentist either? Other progressive Libdem proposals for empowerment for individuals do not entirely answer these issues.

As for core standards and entitlements, I think that core probably means minimal, the state holding a safety net. A school of sorts and emergency dentistry for those without a regular dentist – invariably the financially poor. This is a very weak version of the universal social justice that progressives in all the parties advocate.

There remains the other major difficulty with localism: the embedding of post code lottery in public services, despite the reservations to and funding from central government. We are already seeing access to treatment in health vary among primary care trusts, and variations in access to social and residential care (the last was once nationally financed with a national scale of state-paid fees). We are beginning to get variation in the rubbish collection service. We are one country and these differences, based on parish finance, are not progressive diversities. Taxes are paid nationally for services; to then make access deliberately dependent on local circumstances outside ordinary people’s effective control, and on the accident of where they live, is perverse. This is what the advocates of localism should address.

Clegg’s comments are a start, though I’m not sure I should be saying that of a party that has advocated localism for eons. The parties should acknowledge the need to problematise localism. If they wish to be taken seriously, they must not present cliches as policy; they must explore the difficulties and drawbacks as well as the possibilities associated with localism, and work out a practical interpretation of it. Let Clegg’s be the last hurrah for shiny, generalised sentiments about localism.

If you can’t make it right, make it shiny: an engineering saying (cited by beesthorpe, ubuntuforums)

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