This localism bill shows Eric Pickles is Hazel Blears in super-sized wolf’s clothing
Simon Jenkins, The Guardian
The big society is dead. Long live the small one. Big is bad, and anyway it was just a politician’s cliche, glitter to dress the stage for a passing election back in early 2010. What matters is power, power and its distribution. That is the theme with variations of the coalition’s most important constitutional measure so far, this week’s localism bill published by Eric Pickles.
Given that Labour produced a dozen similar bills without substance, including the Hazel Blears bill in 2009, The attempt by Pickles to honour his party’s commitment to localism makes some good noises. It hopes to rid the state of regional bureaucracy, though we are not holding our breath. It should kick life into elected mayors for big cities, though nowhere else. It could end Labour’s nonsense of traffic fines going only to roadworks, not care. It even includes a joke, a corps of "bureaucracy busters" made up of Whitehall civil servants.
But there is a gaping hole at the heart of this measure, and that hole is democracy. The present government, like its predecessor, lives in holy terror of the ballot box. It dreads the wide uncertain sea of the local franchise. Having won their own mandate, ministers clutch legitimacy to their bosom, and do not want to share it with anyone. There is no sharing in this measure.
Pickles, dancing to the tune of David Cameron and George Osborne, claims to want to devolve power from central government. In his preamble he says he wants to give it, variously, to the "big society", communities, neighbourhoods, local people, or just people. Through the vehicle of these abstract nouns, English citizens (no such nonsense for Wales and Scotland) are to be released from central bondage, re-empowered, and allowed to feel the juice of social responsibility flowing through their veins. Pickles positively quivers with excitement at this legislative foreplay.
He cannot burble the word community too often. Communities will have community budgets, community ownership, community referendums, community "rights to challenge", community "rights to request", and a community right to designate buildings "of community value" as inalienable and ripe for community ownership. A surging revolution will batter down the barricades of Whitehall. Pickles appears to envisage a grand Les Misérables finale, in which "the people" rise up against state power and drown the orchestra in ecstatic squeals of empowerment.
What are these communities? Like Labour, the Conservatives can hardly bring themselves to mutter the word "elected". To suggest that a ballot box might share power with Whitehall’s gilded ones is still treasonable in Westminster circles. While the bill’s guide does mention "elected local representatives" (let alone the despised word "councillors"), they are merely on a long list of those designated as "best placed" to represent the new communities. Others equally blessed with community legitimacy are "public service professionals, social enterprises, charities, co-operatives, community groups, neighbourhoods and individuals". Whatever happened to mothers and apple pies?
Move to the bill itself and we see the need for more legally robust definition. There is a desperate attempt to delineate what a community is, in the form of wards, parishes and electoral districts. Within these vague boundaries are said to be a multitude of bodies not elected but "relevant" to the coalition’s values: voluntary bodies, community bodies, charities, parishes, "two or more employees" of a local authority, and "some other person as might be specified by the secretary of state" – presumably his brother-in-law or capo di famiglia. There is no serious attempt to define the territorial entity that is to enjoy some novel power.
Of these bodies, only parish councillors are elected. Yet any or all will be free to draw up lists of buildings, including private ones, of community value and demand to take them into community ownership. Any or all can block or promote the development of local land, whether green belt or not. Any or all can "request the right" to run local businesses or services, presumably including those recently cut by the local council or in competition with the private sector.
There is little in the bill to empower democratic localism and much that disempowers it. Most odd is that local trade unions, as relevant voluntary bodies, are apparently allowed to take over the management of local services. It seems that unions could use the Pickles bill to municipalise every village and town. Under the guise of a big society, the Tories have produced a local echo of Labour’s 1940s nationalisation, except that in place of statutory undertakings and democratic oversight Pickles means to empower the saloon bar at the Bull. We may be ruled by anyone from clog dancers to Unison’s general secretary.
Matters are unlikely to reach this pass. Even a cursory reading of the bill yields two stark conclusions. Any outbreak of unelected oligarchy cannot last in the face of its lack of democratic legitimacy. The only bodies below the tier of district or unitary authority that should realistically wield such power are elected, which means they must be parish or town councils. Yet parishes hardly get a nod under the new localism. Someone seems to have wiped them from Pickles’s script. Unless the new community bodies are to be properly defined and elected, the fate of this reform is clear. It will be chased into the sand by regiments of crazed activists and lawyers.
Nor is that all. If one hole at the heart of the bill is democracy, the other is taxation. Because they are unelected, the new "relevant" bodies will not have the one power that drives government forward: the power to tax the communities they purport to lead. Even elected local councils are to remain capped, unless they choose to call a single-issue referendum on a high-spending alternative budget. Pickles is in effect preventing the one change that might mitigate the agony of cuts – and mitigate their political pain for the coalition – which is some local discretion to tax and spend.
As a result the English are not to be permitted powers and functions enjoyed by democratic communities across Europe. No political party has sufficient confidence in local people to take the risk. None has the faith. All are led by Westminster politicians who fear any loss of central control implied by subsidiary democracy. A community will need government permission to blow its nose.
Pickles is Hazel Blears in super-sized wolf’s clothing. Like Labour, he and his colleagues lack the courage of their declared convictions. They set out on the yellow brick road to localism, but at the first turn they swerve off into a fudge factory. When challenged, Pickles promises that this is just a first step on the path to real decentralisation, that he will return to the task soon. All politicians say that. They all profess to love localism and, like Don Giovanni, they may even have meant it at the time. Then along comes the seductress, power.
Orwell’s rulers in 1984 were more honest. They simply declared themselves not interested "in wealth or luxury or long life or happiness: only in power, pure power". That is what this bill is about.