Friday, March 16, 2007

Why we shouldn't support the Sustainable Communities Bill

Ways to make yourself unpopular in the Lib Dem blogosphere attack a seemingly localist measure. But seriously, the Sustainable Communities Bill, what a pile of crap.

One of the knocks on the Government's ID card programme has been that it was being touted as the saviour from such a multitude of problems, from terrorism to illegal immigration to benefit fraud, that it was too good to be true. Well according to flyer that fell out of my Lib Dem News this morning the sustainable communities bill is going to help save the world. Whatever.

My problems with this Bill are twofold.

1) Although I have no problem with the principal of localism, I am a good liberal after all, I'm not overly enamoured with the fact that this campaign seems to be hitching it up to the idea of Ghost Town Britain. As if somehow if only communities were empowered they would see the light and stop wanting the cheaper prices, better products, and superior service that globalisation has brought us. This is not to say there isn't a role for the small local shop or certainly a traditional village pub, but only where they can compete by providing a niche service. We got away from the State propping up failing large businesses in the 1980s, I don't see why we should start throwing taxpayers money (either through direct subsidy or higher prices due to protectionism) down the drain to support failing small businesses in the naughties.

2) The practicalities of what the Bill suggests is laughable. The Government should draw up a statutory national action plan based on the contributions of the 400 odd principle local authorities. How much is that going to cost for starters (quite a lot according to a colleague who has looked at this)? And what exactly is it going to achieve? Well this is were the proponents get a little hazy. The LAs will be able to suggest to Government indicators for their local area, which Whitehall will then magically make get better through mystical policies. Those of you who know anything about Local Government policy may think the first half sounds strikingly similar to the Local Area Agreements introduced two years ago. The second half is just too hazy to even attempt a cogent analysis of, but to me smacks of the Local Government sectors traditional problem. They bitch and moan about wanting more power, but their response to any real life challenge is to complain that Central Government should do something about it.

So what would I do instead. Well I would stop worrying about "Ghost Town Britain" for starters and look at what Government really can effect. If we are going to move to a more localist system in this country in a big-bang way then it needs to be done properly, not with half arsed measures like the Sustainable Communities Bill.

I may return to what a more localist system might look like in more detail, but its essentials would have to be.

1) A clear delinination of competencies between local, regional and national government. Some things would move down from the centre to more local levels, but also some things might move up.

2) Democratic regional government, there is a growing evidence base that some functions, such as strategic planning, economic development, strategic health planning, and fire and rescue services (to name a few), are best organised at a regional level. The GLA has proved that strategic regional government can work in England; but we would need to find a regional geography that made cultural and economic sense rather than the current artificial carve up.

3) Local Government has to become fit for purpose. That means some structural change. The ending of the absurd two tier system that is inefficient and confusing for the public; a move to bigger councils in some areas so they have the capacity to deal with their responsibilities (bye-bye Rutland I'm afraid); and greater use of directly elected Mayors, especially in urban areas. But more importantly a change in mindset, recapturing some of entrepreneurial spirit of the semi-mythical city fathers of the late 19th century rather than looking to Whitehall for guidance all the time.


Blogger James said...

I'll leave aside your proposed alternative solutions, as they are neither here nor there. The Sustainable Communities Bill has never tried to be an alternative to comprehensive decentralisation, it is about trying to tackle the issue of sustainable communities in the here and now.

In short, we can wait a few decades for a Lib Dem government to put everything right, or we can work within the system to get the best outcome possible.

Your diatribe about Ghost Town Britain being an excuse for state subsidies and state sponsored subsidies is simply wrong. The problem that people encounter is, too often, monopolistic practices by big corporations, something which the Liberal Party was all-but founded to prevent.

To take a specific example, I'd recommend reading today's Last orders article in the Guardian. This isn't a local pub failing because it isn't commercial, it is a big brewer using its strength to bully a local community into submission, pure and simple. You align yourself with Greene King in this debate; I don't.

As for the practicalities of the Bill, you have a point. But it is precisely those practicalities which the authors of the Bill are currently working through with the DCLG. But ultimately, it is no different in scope than any of the hundreds of consultations that the government spends millions of pounds on every year. In practice it is different in that the Bill calls for a specific outcome to that consultation.

Ultimately, if you feel strongly enough that the concerns about local sustainable are such nonsense, the Bill allows you to have your say. Can't say fairer than that, can you?

4:51 pm  

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