Political notes

David Cameron's new green paper talks of a radical Tory localism. But he will find the centralising habit hard to break
April 25, 2009

When Margaret Thatcher sat down with her first cabinet in No 10, one of the agenda items was a plan to free local authorities from Whitehall control. It didn't quite work out. Thatcher herself recalled that she was soon "forced down the path of still tougher, financial controls, as the inability or refusal of local councils to run services efficiently became increasingly apparent." Tony Travers at the LSE characterises her reign as an "11-year-long war against local government."

Today a truce has been declared. David Cameron describes himself as a "confirmed localist." Thoughtful Tories, like Oliver Letwin, look back to an older, Burkean tradition concerned with the "little platoons" of local communities. Last month the Conservatives launched a green paper on the issue, which Cameron advisers think contains some of the most radical ideas they will bring into government. They may find more allies in future, given that many of the expected new Tory MPs will have earned their stripes in town halls. Some of his opponents, too, will warm to these ideas. In 2006, David Miliband argued that Labour politics needed what he called a "double devolution," by which he meant giving power to local authorities, who would in turn give it to individuals. "Devolution is a deal," he declared.

Amen to that, say the new Tories. But they want to go farther. The Conservatives say that they will allow more elected mayors, but only if a majority vote for them in referendums. Local taxpayers, they say, will be able to veto large council tax rises, again by referendum. But the most important Conservative proposal—one largely overlooked—is to grant councils a "general power of competence." In future they will not need a specific mandate to act, but can undertake any lawful activity without a permission slip from Whitehall. On paper, it indicates a profound change in the relationship between central and local government.

But will it happen? The last 30 years have taught us that it is easier to talk about localism than to pursue it. Centralising habits are hard to break: just ask Ed Balls, the education secretary, who has just ordered every director of children's services in England to go back to the field for retraining. Many Tory advisers look at such antics and think that a different approach must be possible. Cameron, with his home counties background, also has something of the shire about him. But the small cadre of strategists is only just beginning to grapple with the barriers that block the path to decentralisation.

Britain is the west's most centralised state. Our local tax base is non-existent, except for council tax—which the Tories want to keep low. If decentralisation of power takes place without tax reform, it will be a rare example of representation without taxation. Liberal Democrat proposals for a local income tax are one way forward, as are more modest local user charges for services. But the truth is that local tax reform is nearly impossible because poorer areas will lose out if they have to raise their own revenue: sharp variations in local tax bases require central redistribution.

On top of the fiscal difficulties, there is a raw political problem. Once a party wins in Westminster, it begins to lose council seats. Labour has watched town halls turn blue. If Cameron wins the trend will reverse and he will have to persuade his parliamentary party to give more power to institutions over which it is losing control. This is why some Tories talk of pushing a localism bill through parliament within a year of taking office.

Political dividends will also be small. It will take years, perhaps decades, for citizens to feel that local politicians are in control. Any failure in local education or child protection will still seek out a national politician to blame. The result will be responsibility without power—the predicament every minister fears.

In time, citizens and the media will recognise that power has shifted. But it might be a wait, given the nation's long history of looking to Westminster. "We'll probably be out of power by the time the penny drops," sighs one Tory.

Before that happens, another difficulty will rear its head. Devolution also means diversity—that is its point. But this means more of what will thoughtlessly be dubbed "postcode lotteries"—in other words, "postcode democracies." Variations will provoke fierce controversy. The decision to impose tougher licensing of lap-dancing clubs—charmingly sex encounter venues or SEVs—will soon be taken by local authorities, leading to many public spats. Thoughtful localists think that the same approach should govern other social decisions like the smoking ban in public places. But a patchwork of local decisions is anathema not just to mandarins, but also to most national politicians. To be a localist is of necessity to be a pluralist. And like localism, pluralism has always been more popular as political rhetoric than as a governing philosophy.